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The Construction of Identity

The Construction of Identity in Emergent Literatures:

Nationalism Written in the Language of the Colonizer

by Chinghiz Aitmatov Writing in Russian and Tahar ben Jelloun Writing in French

Layla AbdelRahim

Comparative Literature Thesis

Bryn Mawr College

Spring 1993


Linda Gerstein (Ph.D. Harvard)

Koffi Anyinefa (Ph.D. Universität Bayreuth, Germany)

Deborah Roberts (Ph.D. Yale)


Today, one hears extensively about theories and works that concern problems of identity. Personally, I never paid much attention to this subject before I came to the U.S. In Africa, I was from Sudan. In Sudan, I was from the North. In the North, I was “the daughter of the Russian woman”. In Russia, I was a gypsy to those who did not know me, or a Russian whose mother had the misfortune of having mated with a foreigner, to those who knew me better. When I was asked who I was, I replied “Lala” if I was talking to Russian speakers, Layla to everyone else, and to the question on where I was from, I answered “Half Russian and Half Sudanese”. “Yes, but what passport do you carry?” some would insist. “Oh, both”. And there was no problem.

However, in the U.S., I have to give precise answers: “what race are you – choose one: Caucasian, Afro-American, Hispanic of Central America, Hispanic of Latin America, Native American, Asian, Other”. Being “other”, I began to reflect on race, culture, nationality. “Well, you’re here on a Sudanese passport, so does that make you a Middle Eastern or an African, because, in fact, you look Latina” subjects informed on the ways of the world would insist. And, thus, questions on political identity became real and relevant too: is Russia Europe? Is Sudan Africa or the Middle East? Am I a Latina because I look like one or am I a Sudanese because my American visa is in my Sudanese passport, even though culturally, I am not what a “typical” Sudanese might be?

Comparative Literature is, therefore, a personal research as much as it is of academic interest to me. War and Peace by Tolstoy and the discovery that Camus was French and not Russian (I read l’Étranger in Russian when I was fifteen)inspired me to learn French and to broaden my knowledge of French literature. My double background (Russian and Muslim-Arab) strongly motivated my interest in comparing the works of “Francophone” writers from Muslim cultures and from what Russians refer to as “Soviet national minorities”.

Although, these two cultural entities may seem very different, there are many good reasons to bring them together in a study like the present one. The most important is the context of domination by an imperialist power in which they develop their culture. Such a situation accounts for many common features shared by the emergent literatures elaborated by these dominated cultures.

In this study, I undertake to compare and contrast the works of a Kirghiz author writing in Russian and a Moroccan author writing in French, that is, in the language of the dominating culture. This difficult linguistic problem is one of the main traits that explain many of their similarities. The two works, namely The White Steamboat by Chingiz Aitmatov and L’enfant de sable by Tahar Ben Jelloun, raise important questions in terms of cultural and national awareness. In particular, the study of the authors’ linguistic, rhetorical, narrative, and thematic, choices can be viewed as elements which contribute to create a national literature and a national discourse. Another type of question concerns the degree to which the two authors can actively choose one language over another and the consequences of such choices.

In particular, the choice of a colonially-imposed language raises problems of expression and risks of alienation. It is well known that a language is not a neutral communication device, but carries deeply grounded ideological values. Connotations, semantic fields and syntactic structures provide a specific mold for human experience and thought patterns. Many authors writing in colonial languages have expressed their discomfort in using an expressive tool that just does not fit their native experience and sensibility. However, linguistic alienation is not a fatality: many authors have been successful in overcoming it through sophisticated modifications of the language itself, using their art to bend this language to their own needs. Therefore, the choice of the language, as well as the use of it, is as revealing of identity patterns as the choice of imagery and the styles of narration.

Works of literature parallel and sometimes foster social and political development. Therefore, in examining literary works, one should not avoid placing them in their social, historical, and philosophical context. This is why my considerations on language and narrative structures in the works selected will be preceded by an attempt to relate literature to collective identity issues, in particular nationalism – and to provide some historical background for the cultures involved.

Nationalism and Identity

Scholars and writers were always at hand to

Produce historical and moral reasons for supporting

the ambitions of their nation and to point out that

their nation and its necessities presented a unique

case to which general rules did not apply. (Kohn, 52).

According to Hans Kohn in Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, scholars and writers have created – or collaborated in the creation of – justifications for the political actions of either aggression against other “nations” or self-defense against aggressive nations: they create the grammar for the “other”, i.e. a system of rules for a particular code of cultural and political behavior which allows a systematic interpretation and analysis of that “Other”.

However, they reject the principles of that grammar when their own nation is concerned, claiming it to be an exception, and therefore, different from others, thereby placing themselves outside the created set of rules or outside the system. In the course of interpretation of the Other and of separating themselves from the grammar of the Other, these writers have rejected the Other and celebrated their own cultural and national achievements. In doing so they created a national “voice” in which they claim to have spoken for the people, and to have given them national pride. However, in many cases, what such nationalists claimed to be national culture, was, in fact, either heritage from an earlier invading culture, which was assimilated and adapted to the current culture or an invention.

Ben Jelloun and Aitmatov create such alternative interpretations to history and the world. Aitmatov creates a legend of origin and demonstrates that with the destruction of such myths there is a destruction of the self – the hero of the novel commits suicide when he discovers that his grandfather has killed the Antlered mother-doe, who is the mythical founder of the Kirghiz people.

Ben Jelloun, on the other hand, creates a new view of the world – a kind of circular view of time, language, and experience, instead of the European linear one, as he explicitly suggests with a metaphor: “Amis du Bien, sachez que nous sommes réunis par le secret du verbe dans une rue circulaire” (Ben Jelloun, 15 – emphasis added). His characters continue to travel in circular streets; they are given signs to decipher: “La première métaphore est un anneau comportant sept clés pour ouvrir les sept portes de la ville…. Le deuxième objet qu’elle me donna est une petite horologe sans aiguille. Elle date de 1851, exactement, l’année où la monnaie de cinquante centimes fut frappe en Egypte, et vite retiree de la circulation. Elle me donna aussi un tapis de priers…” (Ben Jelloun, 189).

Ben Jelloun tells us that these are metaphors. A reader’s obligation is to decipher these metaphors. The ring offers seven keys to seven entries. The clock is not a standard clock: it represents stopped time without hands going in circular pattern tracing lives into histories. The circular pattern becomes the circular routes that humans walk. History is not a clock time but lives, interpretations and memory. This kind of narrative pattern and the conception of time and history it manifests are one of the many ways in which writers contribute to the definition of collective identity.

As Hugh Trevor-Roper points out (in Hobsbawm, 15-41), authors are in a position to create completely new traditions and ground them in invented historical evidence, thus contributing to the invention of the history that would provide their people with the elements of a collective identity. In analyzing Ben Jelloun’s and Aitmatov’s works, one has to consider to what extent they use their folk culture and to what extent they create and shape the identity of that culture and its perception; that is, to what extent do they influence its interpretation.

An important distinction should be noted between simply belonging to a cultural tradition and the awareness of belonging to a cultural group which is believed to be essentially different from any other group. Awareness has a political purpose and political consequences (e.g., rebellion and self-assertion) as it stems from a necessarily dialectical self-identification in relation to a compared and interpreted image of the other. In other words, self-identification was the invaded culture’s response to the colonizer’s negative comparison and antagonistic critique of the colony’s culture and history. The claimed underdevelopment of the colony served as a justification for invasion by the dominant nation. Therefore, awareness of difference and the glorification of one’s historical past and culture had nationalistic and international consequences.

Nationalism, as a political organizing force of nation states, is a modern phenomenon. “Nationalism has been one of the determining forces in modern history. It originated in eighteenth-century Western Europe” (Kohn, 4) as a political structure for European nation states and later on an international basis for the states that came in direct contact with these nations (as colonies or as potential colonies). According to Kohn, the nationalism of the big European nation states was the nationalism of the “Haves”, or those who already possess a territorially independent nation state, but who desire to expand their territorial, cultural, and political rule, and thus become aggressive imperial powers. The states that come under the rule of the imperial power – in Kohn’s words the “Have Nots” – develop a reactionary type of nationalism based on a desire to acquire a nation state. In Kohn’s theory, these “Have Not” nations accepted the European (e.g., English, French, and American) revolutionary theory which proclaimed egalitarianism between all human beings and the right for freedom and independence of individuals as well as states.

However, there is another distinction between Kohn’s “Haves” and “Have Nots”: there are such “Haves” as Great Britain, France, and the United States who have the “right” cultural and intellectual background that allows them to develop “good” nationalisms. But other imperial powers, such as Russia, Germany and Austria were, in fact, “Have Nots”. After having perverted the theories of nationalism to their “primitive” level, they have developed into the “bad” nationalisms that “threatened” the world.

Applied to Ben Jelloun and Aitmatov, this theory differentiates between the essentials that characterize the approach the two writers take towards the assertion of national identity: Aitmatov writes under the Soviet/Russian domination, and that places him in the “have not” category that desires to have a nation state, while Ben Jelloun is writing in an independent Morocco, which has a territorial nation state. However, Morocco too went through the “Have Not” stage before gaining its present status. Thus, in light of Kohn’s theory, these writers ought to be writing “bad” nationalisms. My proposition is that they are writing new nationalisms.

According to Kohn, nationalism is a specifically European concept which spread to Asia and Africa after colonization. It is strongly related to political organization and structure that is based on rejection of the Other. In the case of occupied peoples, nationalism was used in the rejection of the colonizer and the colonizer’s naming, classification, and identification of the conquered people by either, asserting one’s own cultural traditions, inventing new ones, or synthesizing an amalgam of various cultures.

Self-awareness springs from comparison with the “other”. One can reject or accept the “other’s” identification of one’s culture or of oneself; however, it is difficult to fully realize the particular characteristics of one’s culture without this comparison. Such contrast of cultures strongly enhances the feeling of national identity. However, it does not mean that the sense of loyalty to one’s culture or people did not exist before this discovery. Nor for that matter, does it mean that there were no rebels who questioned any given cultural status quo. Certainly, questions arise as to whether the collective identity, whatever we may call it – national or cultural – takes a different form at different epochs; here, however, we are dealing with contemporary phenomena, and in the power of the naming game, it is called “national” identity and is a basis for action by even those who are antagonistic to the European naming system.

With regard to the relationship that exists between the named and namer, according to Edward Said, there may not exist a consistent correlation between the name and named. For the modern European, the Orient came into existence with the coming of eighteenth century imperialism, which offered some people economic and career opportunities. Romanticism, then, exalted the Romantic mystery of the colonized world, its exoticism and nativism. It offered moral justification for the European presence in the Orient: to go and cultivate the wild native and to spread Christianity and civilization became the new accepted attitude among the modern Europeans – an attitude that veiled for the average European missionary the relationship of economic exploitation.

A good example of such reading of the Orientals is John Scott’s description of the Kirghiz people in the 1930s. These “were Asiatic peoples whose historical and cultural inheritances came from the Turks, Mongolians, Tartars, and Russians” (Scott, 59). In Scott’s eyes, therefore, Kirghiz cultural heritage belonged only to the “Great” occupiers, and he regards it as inconceivable that these peoples could have their own culture or their private interpretation of the conquerors’ culture.

He continues further, the “cultural level was very low. There was no written Kirghiz language. The population was over ninety-five per cent illiterate. There were no doctors, no schools, no cultural institutions” (ibid). The measure for the cultural and scientific level set by this American traveler in the East was the Occident, for whom written language and institutionalization were absolute criteria of culture. Scott uses Orientalist vocabulary to further define the Kirghiz in relationship to the communist and modernist (in the technological sense) city of Magnitogorsk which was built in the area of the village of Magnitnaya: “…the village of Magnitnaya was made up of Kirghiz and Bashkir herders who were just beginning to till the soil – illiterate, uncultured, wild, and with a tradition of resistance to outside influence…. These tribesmen remained very conscious of their nationality” (Scott, 60). In this language, the definitions of the Kirghiz and Bashkir herders portray a highly negative picture of these people, their work, and their culture. Whereas in the American or French setting, resistance in revolutions or in the madly destructive World Wars is praised.

This raises the question: in using the language of the Other, thereby addressing French and Russian speakers, how much of the related cultures do Ben Jelloun and Aitmatov integrate into the identity of their characters?

Aitmatov assimilates and uses the imperialist vocabulary, such as “tribesmen”, “resistant”, “hostile”. “Different peoples lived then on Enesai. It was difficult for them because they lived in constant aggression. Many enemies had surrounded the Kirghiz tribe” (Aitmatov, 191 – emphasis added). However, he uses it to describe universal, natural human traits rather than only Oriental. “You see, these are human children. They will grow up and will be killing your baby-stags…. You don’t know humans! Not only the forest beasts, but even each other they do not pity… [and] these children as well, the humans will kill” (Aitmatov, 196 – emphasis added).

Thus, Aitmatov accepts certain characteristics attributed to the Orient only on the condition that they be viewed as universal human traits and not specifically Oriental. In this tale, it is the human aspect of the Kirghiz people that will bring suffering to the natural aspect of human beings and their history. Culture becomes a contradictory tool: it can destroy and at the same time one needs it in order to overcome the negative, even destructive, human traits. Myths and legends of one’s historical past and origin offer a cultural level and education that help humans overcome a state that is both specifically human and at the same time wild by bringing them in touch with their “natural” past. The myth of the Antlered mother-doe offers a natural link between humans and nature. The loss of these values results in such characters as the drunkard, the impotent and sterile Orazkul and in the destruction of the self: the suicide of the boy that impels him to drown a death that makes him blend with and disappear in nature.

Ben Jelloun, on the other hand, is writing during a time when there is already an established Francophone and post-colonial literature (the novel was written between 1982 and 1985). Colonial vocabulary is not immediately present with him, and therefore, he rather concentrates on systems of historical interpretation and representation in which he incorporates both Occidental and Oriental systems. However, for Ben Jelloun, too, human experience is violent. Ahmed/Zahra goes through extremely violent experiences, particularly in Salem’s narrative, which involves violent discoveries about him or herself, aggressive attitudes towards women (rape, murder, etc.). The manager of the circus in which Zahra worked had a violent relationship with his mother, and in turn was violent towards Zahra and the others. However, the author specifies that it is the Moroccan society that is violent, thus, to some extent, assimilating colonial vocabulary. “… [J]e pense que notre société est très dure, ça n’a pas l’air, mais il y a une telle violence dans nos rapport qu’une histoire folle, comme celle de cet home avec un corps de femme, est une façon de pousser cette violence très loin, à son extrême limite” (Ben Jelloun, 160).

For the Westerner, especially during 19th and 20th centuries colonial period, the Orient was the world of the wild, the untamed, the irrational, the natural, the backward and therefore the inherently bellicose and violent. The Occident, on the other hand, was depicted precisely as the opposite – it was the world of culture, rationality, control, technological progress, etc. The Orient, thus, became the mirror image and the polar opposite of the Occident. It mirrored the injustice and the violence of a world that names and tames and uses and at the same time by delineating itself as the opposite, this world creates two opposing images that rely on each other.

The Occident was the subject looking at its own creation of what it identified itself as not to be. “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” begins Edward Said in his book.

Although geographically and, to some extent, culturally, the Orient does reflect what the Occident is not – religion, geography, climate, culture – the created culture of both is, nevertheless, a product of many reciprocal conquests and influences, many of which came from the Orient: Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. For, before European imperialism, the Middle East had introduced Christianity and advanced sciences into Europe and later in the eight and ninth centuries Spain, Sicily, and parts of France were conquered by Muslim armies.

The modern “relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony…” (Said, 5). And it is this relationship that helped define the violent emotions that characterized many twentieth century wars of independence and many writers writing from the perspective of the “Have Nots”.

These issues are important in analyzing The White Steamboat and L’enfant de sable, since in interpreting the texts we will be categorizing, naming, and therefore to some extent imposing an identity on them: even if this identity is not political but only in terms of literary genres, philosophical categories, etc., it is still in the European naming and categorizing system, and therefore it is still an identity imposed by Europe.

And even though in looking at the historical influences on and at the historical background of Russian and Moroccan literatures one tries to minimize the subjectivity of interpretation, nevertheless, history itself is subjective (due to personal, as well as ethnocentric biases) and even more so are the interpretations relying on it. Still, it remains vital to consider a historical interpretation of the cultures in question: the Occidental and the Oriental, as well as and more specifically the Moroccan, the French, the Russian, and the Kirghiz.

Perspectives on Historical Experiences

A certain circular, cyclical, and repetitive pattern of imperial history oscillated between what we call the East and the West. Palmer refers to imperialism in the earlier period of our millennium’s segments: “[t]hree types of civilization… confronted each other across the inland sea. One was the Eastern Roman, Later Roman, Greek, or Byzantine Empire (all names for the same thing) with its capital at Constantinople…. The second segment, and the most extensive, was the Arabic and Islamic…. The third segment was Latin Christendom” (Palmer, 20-1). These empires not only confronted each other, but actually influenced and shaped each other. Applied to Said’s theory of the relationship between a colonizer and the Other, self-image as reflected in the Other, and the imposition of identity upon the colonized as being the inverse image of oneself, the East and the West, in such light, underwent strong transformations at the hands of one another.

It can be argued that the European cultural heritage is in fact mostly Middle Eastern. Not only in terms of religious culture did the Middle East shape Europe, but “Arab geographers had a wider knowledge of the world than anyone had possessed up to their time. Arab mathematicians developed algebra so far beyond the Greeks as almost to be its creators (“algebra” is an Arabic word), and in introducing the “Arabic” numerals (through their contacts with India) they made arithmetic…” (Palmer, 21). In fact, European universities were fashined after the oldest universities in Cairo, Bihar, India and Constantinople.

Although these empires were not political in the contemporary sense of centralized economy and government, they were cultural empires, that is, they imposed assimilation to religious and cultural dogmas. In the end, all cultural endeavours have economic questions at their basis. This heritage of imposed assimilation was passed on to the colonialist mission of some of the more modern empires, specifically to the ones we are dealing with in this research: Russian and French.

French language and literature, having been thus influenced by Near Eastern culture, literature, and science, in its own turn has exerted a major influence on Russian literature in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. This had a major impact on the formulation of the character of Russian literature as either imitative or reactive, but nevertheless strongly related to the West. For example, all the great Russian classics, such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and others, were nourished by West European literature and philosophy, and in the 19th century, were strongly influenced by French traditions. French was the official language of the court and the aristocracy. These authors either continued the Western literary traditions or rejected them. Once more, dialectically or synthetically, the West remained the centre line. The incorporation of folk tales and common language by Pushkin and Gogol were among the first attempts at turning towards the folk culture for inspiration and literary form.

For Morocco, the experience has been a more painful one, since the country experienced a direct political and cultural invasion by France. However, the effect has been similar, even if deeper: French language, literature, and culture infiltrated the Moroccan modern history. In this respect, Russian and Moroccan literatures have a certain parallelism of experience: they both had to undergo the phase of rejecting the dominant influences of France to establish and create their own emerging identities, although for Russia, French culture was (an economic) choice, which was not the case in Morocco’s encounter with France. This character of Russian identity was to influence “national minorities” writers, among them Aitmatov, who was influenced by such classical Russian writers as Tolstoy. Tolstoy, on the other hand, even though had mastered the French language fluently (half of War and Peace is written in French), rejected not only French “high” culture, but more specifically the whole concept of industrialization and economic hierarchy (i.e. inequality).

However, the period of colonialism in Africa and France’s golden epoch of influence in Russia is past. Today, Morocco is an independent nation-state and in Russia the official language is Russian and not French. Nevertheless, in Morocco French is still used officially, and this situation approximates Morocco to Kirghizia, at least from the linguistic viewpoint.

Kirghizia, until the 1990s, was still a Republic of the Soviet Union where the official language was Russian. The Soviets referred to such republics as Soviet national “minorities”, as compared to the Russian majority. Thus, as an author writing under the Russian influence, Aitmatov is in a “nation” which, in terms of its economic infrastructure, is at a pre-independence phase.

A major current of emerging independence of African and many Asian colonies occurred in the 1950s and 60s. The fight for independence was a collective experience, the basis for which was a sense of solidarity based on belonging to the colonized world. For example, such prominent literary and philosophical figures as Fanon and Césaire participated in the process of independence of Algeria. Some of the literature produced during these years was an international literature that also had close ties to European currents such as surrealism (Joubert et al., 95-217).

With respect to such political experience, Aitmatov is “dépassé” by intellectual standards. Considering that he wrote the novella in the 1960s (it was published in 1970), the theme of the return to pre-colonialism through the recovery of the original culture, and reversing the evaluative signs, thereby celebrating the negative attributes imposed by the colonizer as positive characteristics of the “natives”, echoed the principles of the movement of “negritude” that was launched in the 1930s by Césaire and Senghor (Joubert et al., 23).

This movement celebrated the imposed colonial descriptions of the colonized and called the “negroes” to be proud of their “natural” qualities: emotions, rhythm, nature, suffering, etc. However, it was exclusive of non-negroes, and did not always avoid the pitfalls of racist discourse. At the same time, it was rejected by many intellectuals for its abusive generality, bringing together such different peoples as the West Indians, the Black Americans, and the Africans (with all their own divisions and diversities), and for its acceptance of the notion that Reason belonged Europeans and not Africans. It can even be said that Négritude shares roots and claims with the theories of Arian supremacy supported by German nationalism under the Third Reich, because race was the main focus of such ideologies. However, I suggest this parallel with all the necessary reservations, since Négritude, contrary to the ideology of the Reich, did not advocate the destruction of the Other, and was certainly more reactive than aggressive.

Although Aitmatov does not clearly state a call for a violent rejection of the colonizer, he does call for a return to the pre-colonial state – represented by the Kirghiz version of the Creation myth, offered by the legend of the Antlered mother-doe. This myth offers an alternative to the Russian orthodox interpretation of the world as well as to the Communist accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aitmatov also ignores the Russian cultural ambiguity regarding the acceptance of pain, the celebration of suffering, self abnegation and self degradation. His legend claims a female deer to be the founder of the Kirghiz tribe. Deer is a wild animal, a part of nature. In this, he echoes the negritude notion of the strong ties between the native and nature.

For Russia herself, the question of identity has been a dilemma. For centuries, she struggled, and still continues to, with the question of whether she was part of Europe or Asia, the East or the West. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great “westernized” Russia. In 1836, Chaadaev published an article mercilessly attacking Russia. “The main cause (for the country’s “desperate condition”), he suggests, “is Russia’s isolation, both national and religious” (Walicki, 86). “We Russians… have given nothing to the world, we have taken nothing from the world; we have not added a single idea to the mass of human ideas; we have contributed nothing to the progress of the human spirit. And we have disfigured everything we have touched of that progress” (ibid). This publication, as well as his debates and arguments, contributed to shape the views of both Westernizers and Slavophiles.

A strong feeling of alienation and of cultural inferiority is expressed in this letter, which, perhaps, wouldn’t have been published had Russia been colonized by France militarily. One of the results of this alienation is expressed in the desire to constantly compete and “catch up” with the West even in the twentieth century. Thus, France played an important role in the alienation and in the creation of a modern national awareness in both Russia and Morocco.

In the 20th century, Russia imported and adapted Communism and tried to use its theories in skipping over the industrial and technological gap between itself and the West. One of the ways of achieving its rise to the position of a superpower was expansion. In this way, even while alienating herself from the West, Russia used Western ideas and methods: colonialism was one of them. Russian expansion into Siberia had began during Peter the Great’s reign. However, particularly after the Civil War (1918-22), the Soviet Union pursued the same policy as France with regard to its colonies: intensive Russification. Just as French became, and often stayed, the official language of French colonies, Russian was the official language in the Soviet Union. And in this respect, Muslim Arab imperialism, too, followed similar patterns. This takes us to the other close relationship between Kirghiz and Moroccan experiences.

Before the Arab invasion in the seventh century, Northern Africa (west of Egypt) was inhabited by Berber peoples whose political structure depended on clan-blood relationship and who spoke languages completely unrelated to Arabic. Although Arabic became the official, unifying language of the area, the Berber languages have survived to the present day, even though the culture has become Muslim. To be Muslim means to know the Qur’an, which is written in classical Arabic, and therefore to have some command of the Arabic language. French colonialism followed the same policy as Russian and Arab expansion: all the three were strongly militant in spreading their dogmas – language, faith, and culture – even though the principles expressed in those dogmas differed. Today, spoken Moroccan is a blend of Arabic, Berber, and French, although writing offers only two alternatives: French and Arabic. For Kirghizia, the native Turkic language remains untouched, apart from a few Arabic and Russian words, despite the culture being Muslim.

It can be argued, then, that these two peoples, the Moroccan and Kirghiz, shared more than mere parallelism of experience. They shared the same shaping and invading forces: the same Other – the East and the West, Islam and France, which represent one and the same force of mirroring, opposition, rejection, and synthesis, circling its pattern through continents and epochs. Language, with its enormous symbolic impact on identity, is certainly one of the main vehicles of this pattern.

Sociolinguistic perspectives

… la Littérature entière, de Flaubert à nos jours,

est devenue une problématique du langage.

Roland Barthes

Languages are cultural systems that offer ways of interpreting the world: sets of connotations, symbols, categories (time, space, etc.). Thus, when writers choose one language over another, they also adopt a specific world view. “Parler une langue, c’est assumer un monde, une culture”, summarizes Frantz Fanon (30).

Many francophone writers (especially during the Négritude literary period but also later) have expressed strong sentiments of alienation and pain for being forced to write in the colonizer’s language, as in the much quoted lines by the Haitian poet, Léon Laleau, where he expresses

… ce désespoir a nul autre égal

D’apprivoiser, avec des mots de France,

Ce Coeur qui m’est venu du Sénégal…

By deciding to write in Russian and French, Aitmatov and Ben Jelloun have chosen the language of the Other, and more accurately, the language of the dominant Other, thus placing their works within the scriptural space of Russian and French literatures. Aitmatov is also considered as part of the Soviet Communist literature as he “is an active and prominent member of the Communist party” (Contemporary Authors, 14). Ben Jelloun, on the other hand, is part of Francophone literature – an established literature with its voice and identity.

The available alternative for Aitmatov would have been Kirghiz, his native language, which is a branch of Turkic. For Ben Jelloun the possibilities are more varied: he could write in Arabic (classical or modern) thus placing the work in Middle Eastern literature; he could also write in his native language, which is a creole of French, Arabic and Berber. Creoles are becoming written languages in many parts of the world (e.g. West Indies), and many writers have the possibility of writing down creoles, even those that haven’t been written before. However, the last alternative for both Ben Jelloun and Aitmatov, that is, writing in Moroccan and Kirghiz would considerably limit the audience. This raises the question: who are these works intended for, and does it matter how broad the readership is?

In answering this question one has to consider that Ben Jelloun writes in a country where independence has already been won back and where Arabic carries with it connotations of Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamic militantism (Palmer, 869-875). Whereeas Aitmatov, at the time of the White Steamboat and many years later, was writing under the Russian/Soviet regime.

The relationship to the language of the invading power differs according to the degree of closeness in time to colonialism, the degree of alienation, and the depth of colonial penetration. For Ben Jelloun the distance from colonialism is greater than for Aitmatov; on the other hand, the degree of French penetration and infiltration of Moroccan culture is much stronger than for Kirghizia, who managed to preserve native language and to some extent religious culture.

Ben Jelloun wrote all of his works in French – creative, journalistic, and theoretical (Joubert et al.). Aitmatov, on the contrary, started to write in his native language, and has received international fame after Djamila, a feminist novel on muslim women, which was first written in Kirghiz and then translated into Russian and French.

The White Steamboat was one of his first works written originally in Russian. Perhaps, what prompted this choice was not merely a desire for a wider public, since he could always reach that public by translating from Kirghiz to Russian as Nabokov did with his English, French, and Russian works; but perhaps it was a message to the dominant Other. However, it is not as simple as that. In choosing to write the novella in Russian, Aitmatov accepts the language, the terminology, and the system of thought of the colonizer. Also, he loses the opportunity of making a statement by writing originally in Kirghiz and then translating it. He thus aides the infiltration of Kirghizia by Russian language. On the other hand, he is writing about the problem of “Soviet national minorities”, thereby making a statement on problems of cultural and national alienation, the existence of which the government refused to admit.

Barthes suggests that the relationship between the writer and language is based on compromise. Language, he says, comes to the human being as a given, which users have to strive to adjust to their own expressive needs. Writers use their personal sets of symbols and stylistic devices to create their own language: “Lécriture est précisément ce compromis entre une liberté et un souvenir” (Barthes, 16).

This applies even more so to writers using the language of the Other. Certainly, both Ben Jelloun and Aitmatov compromise to some extent in using the language of the Other. The language that both writers use is “classical”. The structure of Aitmatov’s language is standard, correct Russian. Much of the vocabulary and sentence structure is antiquated, which gives the novella a tone of remoteness.

This tone of remoteness is strongly enhanced by the oral style of narration that intertwines with the classically structured text. In the oral parts, particularly, Aitmatov uses certain Kirghiz terminology without providing Russian translation of the terms, thereby infiltrating the Russian text with non-Russian terms that are presented as native to the language and not foreign: “Batyr”, “beshik”, “karnai”…. This style stands in contrast to the standard and “correct” language used in the textual narrative, in which Aitmatov uses the Russian language as he believes the Other would have used it.

The structure of Ben Jelloun’s languge is similar – he uses classical French grammar including the “passé simple” to introduce a tone of remoteness. He, too, infiltrates his French with Moroccan and Arabic terms. In some cases he provides translation in French: “il y avait des mots rares et qui me fascinaient parce que pronounces à voix basse, comme par exemple “mani”, “qlaoui”, “taboun”… J’ai su plus tard que c’étaient des mots autour du sexe et que les femmes n’avaient pas le droit de les utiliser: “sperme”…, “couilles”…, “vagin”…” (Ben Jelloun, 35). He thus introduces these words as foreign, indicating to the reader that they do not belong to French, at the same time minimizing the foreignness by incorporating the (polite version of the) translation within the text. This translation is not as explicit as a footnote or a parenthetical notation, options used by other francophone writers.

On the other hand, he provides no translation to words such as “fquih” (ibid, 18) or “Bab El Had” (one of the chapters). These words are not marked by quotation marks or in any other way as being foreign to the text, and yet they are foreign to the language of the text. As a result of this strategy, the text becomes partly alien to French readers, because the author deliberately refuses to explain native terms, which would imply that he should take a distance from his own cultural references to consider them as alien. In fact, such writing techniques allow the writer to reject identification to the Other to whom one’s originality and independence is subtly, yet efficiently, asserted.

This strategy echoes Chinua Achebe’s remarks on African relationship to English. “Most African writers” he says, “write out of an African experience and of commitment to an African destiny. For them that destiny does not include a future European identity for which the present is but an apprenticeship. And let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it” (Achebe in Walder, 274).

Aitmatov does not seem to be so daring when he deals with the “written” text. Although he does write from a Kirghiz experience, he is, more accurately, writing from a Sovietized Kirghiz experience: he is a member of the Communist party; he studied Russian in schools; he adopted the written form of cultural expression.

Both writers turned to narrative structure as a language to compensate for the compromises they had to do in the process of writing in the linguistic system of the Other. For, it is difficult to adjust such language to one’s needs without impairing comprehension and creating an artificial language, whereas, narrative structure is not subject to the same constraints. Whatever the language, it is always possible to resort to genres and modes of narration which are an authentic part of one’s traditional culture and carry, like folk literature, an important part of a people’s identity.

Narrative Structures

Langue et style sont des forces aveugles;

l’écriture est un acte de solidarité historique.

Langue et style sont des objets; l’écriture est

Une function: elle est le rapport entre la

Creation et la société….

Roland Barthes

Style of narration and form of text are closely related to the language and themes of the narrative. Both, Ben Jelloun and Aitmatov, use the style of narration as a tool in bringing out themes of cultural or national identity by intertwining oral traditions with the written text and constantly referring to other oral or written cultural traditions and mythologies.

Ben Jelloun explicitly refers to such texts as the Qur’an, classical characters of Arabic literature such as Qaiss and Leila (136), Antar (83), and various Arab poets. Arabic culture is an extremely lingual one. Before the prophet Muhammad, poetry was among the most valued occupations. The Qur’an impressed the Arabs because with its poetic and linguistic perfection so much that they considered it to be the miracle to prove the divine power of God behind it. Thus, although Ben Jelloun does not write in Arabic, he not only refers to Arabic texts but continues the Arabic tradition in French.

At the same time, Ben Jelloun ties L’enfant de sable to such books as Le livre de sable by Borges – books that are concerned with international, rather than a specific national, experience. His technique of meta-narration, in which a secret text refers to another written text, the truth of whose origin is dubious and which disappears or gets destroyed, connects him to other international authors such as Milorad Pavic (Dictionary of the Khazars) and Umberto Ecco (The Name of the Rose), both of whom talk about mysterious, “poisonous” copies of the text.

In tying his work to world literature, Ben Jelloun is giving a new identity to Morocco: Moroccan literature can claim not only to express the Moroccan world view, but also to participate in international discourse. In setting this text in colonial times (the work contains several references to French occupation, for example on page 31), and at the same time exposing the violence and the injustice of the Muslim culture (rape and murder in the circus, the lack of access of women to education, etc.), Ben Jelloun attempts to achieve a synthesis of antagonistic forces that shaped the Moroccan experience. Basing his works in the European post-modern traditions, depicting the shattered realities of the post-war world, Ben Jelloun can place himself in World Literature, without risking his Moroccanness.

Some of Aitmatov’s works, on the other hand, are in the genre of a specific Russian 20th century literary tradition called the village prose or ‘derevenshchiki’ (Treadgold, 492), which coincides in its principles with the approach of Négritude towards the nativist, pre-westernized roots of what is considered to be one’s culture. Russian village prose is a Slavophile, nationalistic literature that rejects Western technology and system of education and rather claims that Russian history is that of peasantry, the earth, the “folk”. According to these writers, Western institutions brought to Russia perversion, inefficiency, lack of a strong traditional culture, and therefore lack of morals. Aitmatov found a place in this literature without having compromised his cultural identity, and in fact calling for it. He drew on Russian village prose tradition and appropriated it to the Kirghiz need of self-assertion.

“He had two tales. One was his own, of which no one knew. The other was that which his grandfather told. Then, none were left. That is what it is all about…. First, a briefcase was bought. A black, leatherette briefcase… it was an unusual, most usual school bag. Probably, it all began with this” (Aitmatov, 160).

From the beginning, the story identifies two problems: the destruction of both myths – the personal and the social myth which is passed on through generations, and the connection of the destruction of the myth to a schoolbag, which represents education. Thus, from the beginning of the tale, Aitmatov juxtaposes local culture to the culture of western educational institutions.

The structure of the narrative is a dialogue between the two forms of narration: on the one hand, the traditional oral narrative in which there is richness, harmony, and knowle ge of where one came from (in the private myth, the boy tells his father about the richness of his life, and in the social myth he tells about the Kirghiz progenitor); on the other hand, the untraditional, Sovietized, Russian text in which there is much solitude and bareness – bare rocks, alcoholism, physical abuse.

Such cultural symbols as number 7, and such themes as education, sterility, gender and death correlate and work together with the narrative structure in both books to construct a post-modern, non-traditional system and an identity based on a multiplicity of voices and images. The authors bring the “traditional” and the “non-traditional” face to face and, in Ben Jelloun’s case, cast them into one whole.

What is traditional in one culture could be new and untraditional in another, particularly in two contrasting couple cultures the French and the Moroccan, or the Russian and the Kirghiz. For example, number 7 is an occult number associated with many cultures. In Muslim traditions, the number 7 is considered mystical. “Arabic writings contain a host of references to 7: seven great leaders from Adam to Muhammad; seven repetitions of magical formulae; seven degrees of Hell; seven journeys of Sinbad the Sailor; seven regions of the earth; seven seas; seven divisions of the arts; seven verses for completion of a poem” (Lyons, 185).

Both writers refer to Muslim traditions, although Aitmatov does it more subtly than Ben Jelloun. His Islamic culture is more visible through such references as to the seven prophets, through greetings and daily interactions between the various characters. For instance: “Assalam ‘Aleikum”, which is a typical Muslim greeting is frequently used.

The White Steamboat is divided into seven chapters. Throughout the text the boy remembers that his grandfather told him that he should shake hands with everyone because the seventh person might a prophet (a reference to the seven accepted prophets in Islam). The seventh chapter involves a major transformation: the boy returns to nature. In committing suicide, he becomes a fish and swims away, thus realizing the link between nature and the human being.

The form of Ben Jelloun’s work, as mentioned earlier, makes an allusion to Borges’ Le livre de sable. The first chapter of Borges’ book is “L’autre”, in which an old man meets his possible other self – a figure of alienation; the first chapter of Ben Jelloun’s is “L’homme” – an alienated old man, questioning his life. “Il y avait d’abord ce visage allongé par quelques rides verticales, telles des cicatrices creusées par de lointaines insomnies, un visage mal rasé, travaillé par le temps. La vie – quelle vie? Une étrange apparence faite d’oubli…” (Ben Jelloun, 7).

Throughout the novel, Ben Jelloun makes references to forgetfulness: …”la tentation sera grande pour l’oubli: il est une fontaine d’eau pure qu’il ne faut approcher sous aucun prétexte, malgré la soif” (ibid, 15). Memory is connected to history and, hence, to identity. Forgetting one’s past is forgetting oneself. However, it is a dangerous self, that the character tells us best to be left alone, untouched, locked.

The last chapter of Borges’ books is “Le livre de sable”; the last chapter of Ben Jelloun’s is “L’enfant de sable”: the titles themselves connect the two books. It is remarkable that “sand” is rich in connotations: desert, death, boundlessness, time as in sand-clock – a set of connotations which is revealing of the many possible interpretations suggested by the books. As for the “book” and “child”, could they be the same type of texts?

The title of one chapter in each book is in a foreign language: “there are more things” and “Bab El Had” which has many meanings. L’enfant de sable is divided into nineteen chapters. All the titles are in French with the exception of one, which is in Arabic. It is the 5th chapter. “Bab” means “door”. In colloquial Arabic, as well as in the logical sequence to the other six “doors” in the book, “El Had” means “Sunday”. But this Arabic word has many other meanings, most of which are related: to mourn, to bound, border, exit, limit, restraint, repression, punishment, etc. The abundance of meanings serves well the intents of the author. Accordingly, the chapter of the book that bears this title has a close relationship with the Arabic identity – a very rich and ambiguous one. “C’est une porte minuscule; il faut se baisser pour passer. Elle est à la medina et communique avec celle située à l’autre extrémité, qui est utilisée pour sortir. En fait ce sont de fausses entrées. Tout depend d’où on vient…” (Ben Jelloun, 49).

This opening adopts all the meanings of “El Had”: the door is miniscule and therefore limiting; it is the door of exit from one world to another, from one realm to another and therefore could associated with death and mourning. “Je ne suis pas en Afrique mais dans un cimetière marin ou froid. Les tombes se sont toutes vidées. Abandonnées” (ibid, 56). At the same time, it is a “fausse entrée”, for, all depends on where we one comes from: the basis is history, and history depends on who tells it and how. The intricate multiplicity of narrators, styles of narration, and “true” endings can be viewed as an interpretation of history. As each story teller appropriates and adapts Ahmed’s story, the history of Ahmed becomes personalized history strongly related to the personality and identity of the story teller.

The book opens in the oral tradition with a narrator who claims to know the truth because he has the written text left by Ahmed from which he reads. However, another story teller comes and tells us that what the first narrator told us was false: “Notre conteur pretend lire dans un livre qu’Ahmed aurait laissé. Or, c’est faux!… D’ailleurs ce n’est pas un cahier, mais une edition très bon marché du Coran” (ibid, 70). What the story teller was reading was in fact the holy book. Either this is a statement on the mishandling of the holy text of the Qur’an as a cheap invention of human experience, or it could be read that human experience is a holy scripture, rampant and inexpensive.

The second interpretation is further supported by the way the different story tellers appropriate and adapt Ahmed’s story to their own interpretations based on their personal experiences. History becomes individualized, subjective, oral, and alive. The first story teller said that Ahmed’s book is “le livre du secret…. Ce livre, mes amis, ne peut circuler ni se donner…. Vous pouvez y accéder sans traverser mes nuits et mon corps. Je suis ce livre” (ibid, 13).

Like Aitmatov’s the text fluctuates between different modes of narration. There is the oral style of a traditional story teller, who, from the beginning claims not to be reading from a written text. The oral narratives engage in a dialogue with the various written texts, as mentioned above, from the various literary traditions of the world. The structure of both texts thus becomes a dialogue with and a voice in the world.


For Ben Jelloun, the meaning of history is in its adaptation and usefulness to living human beings. History is alive and multifaceted. It is the personal and the social identity. The story tellers narrate Ahmed/Zahra’s history as seen in light of their personal experiences. These stories are read from different sources: the Qur’an, anonymous letters, diaries, or are simply invented and told from imagination. As passive and active listeners begin to participate in the stories, they become part of the history – they invent it, thus transforming private histories into communal experiences and thereby into social history. “Nous ne sommes plus des spectateurs; nous sommes nous aussi embarqués dans cette histoire qui risque de nous enterer tous dans le même cimetière” (Ben Jelloun, 24).

Identifying oneself with history involves sharing a common identity with the others involved in the story. By tying history to international history, one extends this identity to include others – thus becoming inclusive rather than exclusive and aggressive.

Aitmatov, on the other hand, by rejecting Russian and hence European education and culture is rejecting a possibility of internationalism. He calls for peace among nations, as long as these nations are allowed to keep their myths and cultural identities. Unlike Ben Jelloun who calls for interculturalism, Aitmatov calls for an independent Kirghiz identity with its unique culture and traditions. These different constructs of identity do not entail any value judgement in terms of one author being ‘better’ than the other. They merely reflect the different realities and political and historical positions.

For both authors memory is vital: remembering what is past is reliving it and identifying with it. However, for Ben Jelloun history or the past is whimsical, unreliable and intangible; whereas for Aitmatov it is vital to “possess” even if mythical, redefined and imaginary.

This brings us back to Kohn and Hobsbawm: writers write history – they invent traditions and experiences that shape collective consciousness and identity. However, applied to Ben Jelloun and Aitmatov, this opens tremendous possibilities, because each person identifying with History then in turn writes her or his own. Even with Memory, identity undergoes transformations not only through time but also through space, the private space of the individual and the written space of the text. Yet it always has enough common ground to connect peoples through centuries, and even if through antagonism, also through space. Certainly, in this respect, literature has always played a major role.


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