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MASCULINITY AS VIRILITY IN TAHAR BEN JELLOUN'S WORK Lahoucine Ouzgane University ofAlberta To be a woman is a natural infirmity and every woman gets used to it. To be a man is an illusion, an act of violence that requires no justification. (Ben Jelloun, The Sand Child, 70) Inthe last ten to fifteen years, scholarly attention to gender issues in .the Middle East and North Africa has been focused almost exclusively, sometimes obsessively,1 on a quest to understand femininity: what it is and how it is made and regulated—with Muslim women's oppression, the everlasting question of the veil, and the practice of female genital mutilation receiving most of the scrutiny.2 But while this attention—by female and male scholars—to the Muslim woman is indeed a salutary one,3 masculinity in Islamic cultures has so far remained an 1 An international conference on Contemporary Issues in Islamic Studies (to be held in Virginia in November 1996) is soliciting papers in these categories: 1) Islamic Law: Theory and Practice; 2) Fundamentalism; 3) Women in Islam. 2As a parody ofthis preoccupation, Fedwa Malti-Douglas writes: "The Arab woman is a most fascinating creature. Is she veiled? Is she not veiled? Is she oppressed? Is she not oppressed? Were her rights greater before Islam? Are her rights greater after Islam? Does she have a voice? Does she not have a voice?" (3) 3 Some ofthe most significant literature on this subject includes LeilaAhmed's Women and Gender in Islam (1992), a study of the development of Islamic discourses on women and gender from the ancientworld to the present, Mamia Lazreg's The Eloquence ofSilence (1994), a detailed analysis ofthe gender relations in Algeria from the precolonial era to the present; The Veil and the Male Elite (more commonly known in French as Le Harempolitique, 1987) by 2 Lahoucine Ouzgane unrecognized and an unacknowledged category that secures its power by refusing to identify itself. There are as yet no studies that make Muslim men visible as gendered subjects and that show that masculinity (like femininity) has a history and clear defining characteristics that are incomprehensible apart from the totality of gender relations in Islamic cultures. In this essay, I wish to consider masculinity as it is depicted in some ofTahar Ben Jelloun's major fiction. With more than twenty novels, two plays, and three poetry collections produced in the last thirty years, Ben Jelloun is undoubtedly the most prolific contemporary francophone North African writer. Though he had earned several important literary awards before, his rise to literary and public prominence began when he became the first African Arab writer to be awarded Le Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, for his novel La nuit sacrée published in 1987. Ever since, some of his works have been translated into fifteen languages (Daoud 62) and The SacredNight has recently been made into a film. Some critics have even begun to refer to Ben Jelloun as a future Nobel Prize candidate (Ndiaye 48). I will argue that in a world where the social has taken precedence over the religious, in a world where transcendence has given way to what René Girard describes as "mimetic rivalry,"4 Ben Jelloun's characters are unable to know love as an "experience of transcendence" (Gans). As a consequence they inevitably reduce masculinity to virility, a fragile attribute sustained only through repeated acts of violence. It is indeed possible to read masculinity in such a setting as a set of distinctive practices which emerge from men's positioning within a variety of social structures. In short, masculinity in Ben Jelloun's fiction is perhaps best Fatima Mernissi, an indictment of the way in which numerous Hadiths (or sayings by the prophet) have been manipulated by a male elite to maintain male privileges; Fatna Sabbah's Woman in theMuslim Unconscious(1984), a critique ofthe seemingly contradictory messages which the Islamic legal and erotic discourses imprint on the female body; and Fedwa Malti-Douglas' Woman's Body, Woman's Word (1991), a mapping out of the relationship of woman's voice in Arabo-Islamic discourse to sexuality and the body. 4Central to Girard's thought is...


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