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Driss Chraibi : What do we call a civilisation?

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Driss Chraibi

Driss Chraibi  likes to say that he has lived through three worlds: colonial Morocco before theSecond World War, the years of North African liberation struggles; and the era of independence. His first novel, Le Passé Simple (1954), was a story of youthful revolt; his latest, La Mère du Printemps, is a chronicle of the earliest days of Islam in North Africa.

 

Driss Chraibi wa born in 1926 to a father who was a tea merchant (and a wealthy and learned Fassi) and a mother who came from a family of writers and philosophers who could claim links with the Idrissi family, founders of Fez.

 

Although his father was a traditionalist and a member of the Derkawa Sufi tariqa,  he decided Driss should go the the French lycée in Casablanca “to prepare for the future”. During the Second World War, the lycée Lyautey in Casablanca was an élite school. The teachers, according to Driss Chraibi, were “exceptional beings” who, for a whole generation of students, were the image of humanism.

 

In Driss Chraibi’s class there were only three Moroccans: Thami Ouarzani, who later became a minister; Ali Yata, who became Secretary-General of the Moroccan Communist Party, and Driss himself. Among his French classmates, one became an admiral, another a lawyer,and a third a member of the supreme court.

 

“Sop I was obviously destined to become part of the system”, he comments. “When the Maghreb became independent, I could have become a minister. But something happened deep inside me”.

 

Driss Chraibi went to study in France. His father wanted him to study medecine, but after a year he changed to chemistry. He received his degree in 1951 and then looked for a job. “It was near Paris, at Villejuif, in 1951 that my revolt took place”, explains Driss. “I was third in my class but I could not find a job, or I was offered half the money French nationals were making”.

 

Then there was the problem of racism against the North Africans. “I could not accept it, out of pride, out of vanity. I was the son of a well-off bourgeois and my feelings of revolt were not very mature. I thought France was just emerging from occupation and Nazism and it could still change. But later I realised that it would not. As Camus said, the germ of the plague was still alive”.

 

So gradually this young Moroccan who had studied with the élite of colonial France realised that he was not accepted by the French as one of them and began to confront the facts of colonislism. He also began to discover hunger and  poverty, vividly described in Le Passé Simple.

 

“If during my childhood I saw poor people who knocked on our door, I did not realised (what it meant). I believed it was quite natural. It was only after seeing our former rulers, here in France, kneeling down to pick up cigarette butts and starving (there were still rationing and food shortages at the time) that I told myself that there is a problem of hunger”.

 

Le Passé Simple is the story of adolescent revolt against a tyrannical father who beats one of his sons to death. The mother commits suicide. At the end of the book the hero, who had considered killing his father, gives up and leaves for France.

 

Although the novel uses real names and places, the author says today, “The autobiography stops here -- all the rest is imaginary”. Le Passé Simple is, he explains, a revolt against everything. The father in the novel is a symbolic figure: he represents authority in general, wherever it comes from.

 

His second novel, Les Boucs, recently translated as The Butts, delves deep into the misery of immigrants living in France. It came close to winning the Prix Goncourt and “I was invited (to see) Dubois (the Prefect of Police), Jacques Soustelle (who became Governor-General of Algeria) and even novelist François Mauriac. I believed my book would stop the war in Algeria. Then I realised that the war was going on”.

 

For the next 25 years Driss Chraibi went on writing books which sold well, and he worked for French radio. “Since it was well paid, I lived in material comfort, but my brain was a little rusty”.

 

A few years ago, a number of things changed: he moved out of Paris, married his second wife, Sheenah, and signed up with a new publisher, Editions du Seuil,. “It is like a second break with the world in which I used to live”, Driss Chraibi says.

 

Driss ChraibiThe first product of this new era was Une Enquête au Pays (1981), the story of a chief of police and his deputy, Inspector Ali, who go to a small mountain village in search of a dangerous fugitive. The novel is a violent denunciation of “chiefs”, big and small. It is also an opportunity for Driss Chraibi to evoke a pastoral idyll “when there was grass and milk in abundance and all the fruits of mother earth”.

 

The book is not, however, optimistic. The chief of police is killed by the villagers but Ali goes free. A few weeks later a new chief of police arrives with helicopter. The new chief is Inspector Ali.

 

But Driss Chraibi has long since passed the stage of acid revolt. The language in Enquête is wonderfully evocative; obviously, he enjoyed writing it.

 

It is his latest novel, La Mère du Printemps (The Mother of Spring) which represents a major departure from his previous work. It is the epic story of General Oqba ibn Nafi who, with 10.000 bedous, 20.000 camels and 40.000 water skins conquered the Maghreb in the name of Allah and planted the green flag of Islam on the territory of the Berbers.

 

The two main characters are General Nafi, the man who acts in the name of Allah, and Azwaw, the berber chief who converts to Islam in order to be in a better position to “resist”.

 

At the end of the book, the two protagonists meet on the Atlantic beach at the estuary of Umm er-Bia. This, says Driss Chraibi, is “the fireworks of my book: the confrontation of two worlds; on one side, a milennial past, a tribal Berber pantheist past, and on the other everything which came to speak in the name of a religion”.

 

Driss Chraibi denies that he is a champion of Berberism. “I am”, he says, “a pantheist who rejects all taboos, and at the same time I try to be a Muslim. Also, I admire a lot of Western rational thought. The only way to reconcile the three is to write, and lash out”.

 

He also feels Islam is being misrepresented. “I think Islam is very badly represented by the heads of state now in power who give a very wrong image of Islam”.

 

“Evert now and then, you have to draw up a balance sheet in life. And don’t forget that since my very first book I have raised this question -- What do we call a civilisation? I am in search of the infancy of Islam. It is a lost paradise which could have succeeded”.

 

His next book, Birth, will describe the Muslim world at its zenith from the ninth to the 13th century and is set in Spain and Morocco, with the flowering of art and science in Granada, Cordoba and Fez.

 

(The Middle East magazine, July 1983)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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