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“Democracy is not like an aspirin you dissolve in water”

Interview: Tahar Ben Jelloun. The Arab Spring caught the world by surprise. If anyone has anything to say on these developments, it is the prolific Moroccan-French writer Jelloun.

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Photo by Anna Achon

The Arab Spring caught the world by surprise. Despots have been dethroned in Tunisia, Egypt and, with NATO’s help, Libya. Yet repressive leaders like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad remain entrenched and have come down hard on protestors, killing thousands of civilians.

Although a new democratic spirit seems to have infused the region, the Middle East’s future is far from certain.

If anyone has anything to say on these developments, it is the prolific Moroccan-French writer Tahar Ben Jelloun. His contributions to publications like El Pais, La Vanguardia and Le Monde, have been harshly critical of both radical Islam and Western policy. In hundreds of articles and essays, dozens of prized novels and poetry books, some published in over 40 languages, Ben Jelloun has been recording the heartbeat of his native Maghreb.

In your opening speech at the Berlin Literature Festival about the Arab Spring, you seemed torn between enthusiasm and a certain pessimism about the future.

Yes, of course, because there is something wonderful, even historic, that has totally transformed not just one country, not just a few countries, but almost all of the Arab world. Of course you have to applaud the whole thing, but at the same time you have to be prudent, because they are revolts that will give birth to an unforeseeable future. So one must be realistic. I can’t fall into blissful optimism.

You criticised the use of the term, ‘The Jasmine Revolution’. You insisted these were revolts, not revolutions.

Take the case of Iran in 1979. That was a revolution. Although they didn’t really know that it would result in the regime we have now, there was a clear ideology, and they knew what they wanted to do: overthrow the Iranian Shah. Here, there’s no clear ideology or preparation that sustains the operation.

There’s a very good word in Arabic: intifada. It’s really the drop that makes the water overflow. That’s the perfect image to show what’s happening in the Arab world.

After so much humiliation, after years of suppression and oppression, comes the time when too much is too much and you have someone like that young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire and suddenly became the spark that ignited the whole revolt. Of course the poor kid had no idea what he had done.

What about Syria and Libya?

These are the two tragic cases.

In Libya it is going to be extremely difficult to rebuild the state, because there is no political structure, no parties and no democratic expression. It was a wild state. And now, suddenly, Libyans will have to change their habits and worldviews and try to build a state out of nothing. It’s going to be very long and very difficult.

The second tragic state is Syria, which is a military state that has been entirely ruled by one family for over 40 years, whose tradition of murdering is undisputed. The father of Bashar al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad, killed tons of people, and his son is following in his footsteps. They belong to a religious minority, the Alawites, who maintain a strong relationship to Iran.

Change could only come to Syria if someone in the army decided to stage a coup. And because of the geo-strategic situation, we can’t intervene the way we did in Libya.

Why not?

In Libya’s case, Gaddafi’s pathological, megalomaniacal profile really turned off everyone, and at some point the alternative was to intervene and help the Libyan people or let bloodshed occur behind closed doors.

Syria is in a very difficult strategic position. It is surrounded by problematic countries: Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan. If you intervened, it would spill over into the neighbouring countries. There is also a bad mixture of confessions and ethnic groups: Greek Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Druze, Alawites, Sunnites, Ismaelites, Shiites, Aramaic Christians, Jews, every religious group. Syria has more than a million Iraqi refugees, not to mention the Palestinian refugees who have lived there for decades. This adds up to a very complicated situation and is very different from Tunisia or Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria seems to be very strong, more radical than in Egypt. Is there a risk that the dictatorship could be replaced by an even more repressive Islamist regime?

Of course there are many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the same group that killed former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat after he signed the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

But on the other hand, the regime in Damascus now calls any democratic action in Syria “an act of terrorism”, denounces any voice calling for more democracy as “criminal”. Everybody wants more freedom, and nobody wants to be ruled by an oligarchy.

How did you react to David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy playing revolutionaries in Benghazi?

It’s obvious that neither Sarkozy nor Cameron did that for democracy’s sake. On the one hand, they hope to demonstrate how they champion humanist values. On the other hand, they hope to be the first ones to do business with the new regime. That’s just the way it is. Business is business. If one can wrap it in human rights, then great.

Western powers were never very disturbed by dictatorships. I met Sarkozy and asked him why he invited that idiot Gaddafi to his country. He said he had made a deal: Gaddafi liberated the Bulgarian nurses and therefore got invited to France.

European foreign policy doesn’t have much dignity. A good example is Israel. Every time Israel kills civilians, no one does anything. There were a lot of UN resolutions on Israel and no one cares. No one does anything.

You warned against religious intolerance in Tunisia. What do you see as the future role of religion in these young democracies?

Intolerance is widespread. Religions trigger it, propagate it. Outside religion, one can doubt and accept differences. So, long live secularism, freedom of thought and the duty to respect others! With democracy, Arabs will have to learn the difference between atheism and secularism.

You often say that democracy is a learning process.

I remember when the great rogue, George W. Bush, was going into Iraq ‘to bring democracy’, I was one of the first to write that democracy was not something that you ‘bring’ to people. It’s not like an aspirin that you dissolve in water and you drink one morning and by the afternoon you’ve got democracy.

You have to foster democratic habits. You can switch to dictatorship from one day to the next, but not to democracy. Freedom and democracy must be learned and cultivated. It will take at least a generation. Each country has a very specific situation.

The way Egypt functioned, for example, was not at all comparable to Libya. Egypt had a political tradition. They had parties. As for Tunisia, it was a classic example of a dictatorship in which the opposition was oppressed. You can’t put them in the same bag.

As a writer, you famously slipped into dictators’ heads – Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi. Why did you resort to this literary gimmick?

It’s a way to understand the way these people function. When I wrote that article for Le Monde, I had to make a great effort to get into Saddam’s head to try to see how he functions inside. Because these people are not pretending. They are convinced what they are doing is for the good of the people.

It’s like the Hitler syndrome. They think they are doing it for a better future for humanity. The monstrosity of their actions doesn’t appear to them the way we see it. Of course, they realise they are doing horrible things, but to them it is secondary.

Your writings betray a pretty pessimistic vision of human nature. You like to quote Spinoza: “Every being tends to persist in its being.” Depressing!

Man is capable of everything, which is why I’m not a great fan of humanity. People like Schopenhauer and Cioran probably said it all, but people always think they are cleverer than that and that they won’t repeat the same mistakes.

And no matter what, it happens again, and man becomes a rat to man and keeps on killing on his own species with the uttermost ruthlessness.

Yet the fact that I don’t entertain any illusions about humanity means that I can recognise that once in a while man can be surprising and contradict the greatest pessimist.

Nobody really changes? Not even you?

No one changes, but everyone tries to adapt, to lie a little bit while knowing deep down that one will remain what one is. I’d like to become more cynical, cruel, indifferent and sleep without worries. Alas, I can’t and never will be able to.

Indifferent you’re not. You’re clearly a writer who listens to, in your words, “a bristling world that lives and dies”. One who bears witness.

The role of the writer is to listen to the world’s suffering. To do that you must be humble enough, be accessible and know how to take pieces of reality and make them collide in fiction – as Philip Roth says, to rub them against one another to get something out of it. The woes of humanity are the main source of inspiration. Literature wouldn’t be interested in a world in which everything was alright.

Or a world in which everything was too simple? One of your recurring ideas is ‘the writer doubts’. You’re a fan of  Henri Bergson’s quote: “Intelligence is characterised by a natural incomprehension of life.”

Doubt is essential. There is nothing worse than certitude. My imagination needs doubt to evolve and invade the scene of writing. When I don’t understand a situation, a character, I lose myself in the wildest fiction. I let my imagination guide me. It’s only by stepping away from reality that you stand a chance of catching it.

And that reality is not only slippery. It is sometimes so horrible, so incomprehensibly terrible that words fail. Can literature or poetry bridge the gap of incomprehension?

I don’t know whether it is about bridging gaps. It is surely not about helping people understand the world better. A novel that sets out to explain becomes a handbook for assembling Ikea furniture.

A novel can bring the reader into a particular universe. A novel can record the events that shake the world but there is no way it can explain it. It can give clues. For example, this is what I try to do with my text about Mohamed Bouazizi, Par le feu (By Fire). I don’t explain. It’s a literary text.

For me there is nothing worse than ‘politically engaged art’. When Guernica was bombed and Picasso wanted to bear witness to it, he made this extraordinary painting that even kids can understand just looking at it.

In Par le feu, you use fiction to paint a picture of someone who lost his human nature to become a political icon.

When I saw that man Bouazizi lying on his hospital bed, bandaged up, dying of his burns, I thought: what was his life beyond that? He must have been lovesick, he must have had problems, moments of happiness. I tried to imagine that.

Twenty years ago, after the Gulf War, I wrote a book about the Iraqi soldiers you would catch a glimpse of on TV: abandoned, burnt carcasses left on the roadside. Next to those American soldiers who were put in special body bags and honoured in ceremonies back home. I thought to myself, why don’t those corpses receive any attention? There were so many more!

I imagined those people, who had names, who had families, who had children and mothers and lives before, personal problems, emotional problems. Suddenly you realise that these people have been sacrificed. Killed and forgotten. They just disappear like cattle culled during an epidemic. One has to talk about those people, give them back their humanity.

Is that why you write?

I write because it’s my breathing. I couldn’t do anything else. I try to do a little pedagogy. I try to do a bit of law. I try to explain things. Try to explain racism to people, try to explain the intelligence of things.

Can you imagine a society without any literary production, whether theatre or books? It’s not something you can comprehend. Literature is part of life. Just because capitalism has turned culture into a consumer good like any other doesn’t mean that you can live without culture. We need to eat, sleep, work. And we need to dream, to imagine and cultivate our minds and our emotions. It’s a primary need.

You’ve lived in France for 40 years. You write in French. Where do you stand when you criticise European politics or Arab groups? Who are ‘we’, who are ‘they’? Who are you?

If you can imagine, I’m both! There are times when I am totally concerned with what’s happening in France and I feel ‘we’ and other times when I totally feel part of what is happening in Morocco or the Arab world.

I’m not an ambassador for the Arab world. I always express myself very personally. I don’t define myself in terms of national identity. I was born in Morocco, but I am European. I am also Maghrebi. I surely feel more at home in France than in Kuwait. When I go there I am totally lost.

Your books used to be shelved under foreign literature in some French bookstores. Where do you think your books belong?

Among French literature, of course. You see Hanish Qureshi, Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy alongside Martin Amis and David Lodge. They are with all the English writers. So we are French writers, and people have to understand that.

In the first year that I was in the French Academy, I battled hard to have the prize go to an Afghan writer who learned French and wrote his first book in French, and it’s amazing.

You were accused by some Arab writers of producing exotic literature for Western tastes.

Yesterday, a German friend of mine was telling me that David Grossmann was writing to flatter the tastes of Western audiences. I totally disagree. He writes wonderful things that speak directly to the Israeli people.

As for myself, I have no idea. I just write for everyone.