[(essay date February 1991) In the following essay, Cazenave traces the central themes of age and gender in L'Enfant de sable and explores how the novel acts as a metaphor for the problems faced by Maghrebin authors writing in French.]
Traditionally, in African literature, and even more so in North-African Literature, factors of age and gender appear to be key elements in determining the role and status in society for a given character. Geographically and socially, such factors establish a distribution of space (the outside and the inside) and of fixed functions. In L'Enfant de sable (1985) the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, who was awarded the Prix Goncourt for La Nuit sacrée in 1987, uses the two parameters of age and gender as the very focus of the novel. The plot revolves around the question of the gender of the hero as he (or rather she) grows: a girl from a Moroccan family is raised as a boy and then as a man. It then centers on the development of the character, the problems caused by this false identity, and the reactions elicited from the hero, the other protagonist, and the story-teller (acknowledged as the official narrator).
With a twisted and subversive character like Ahmed, Ben Jelloun naturally highlights the question of the many levels of textual interpretation. Beyond the impact that ambiguity of gender and maturation may have in terms of self-identity and social status within the context of the Moroccan family and Moroccan society at large, one may wonder how to interpret this controversial text. I will therefore explore the different phases in the make-up of the image, particularly the consciousness of the character in becoming aware of the falsity of his or her identity and of the implications (restrictions, obligations, and potentials) of this identity. Also, I will study the step-by-step changes in behavior--physically, psychologically, and socially--that occur willingly or unwillingly during adolescence and adulthood, when the character becomes sexually aroused or is faced with a social act that he/she has (or decides) to take on, for example, marriage and death. I will then analyze more specifically the textual components and see how ambiguity in gender and identity is reproduced in the text. I will especially examine the symbolism of the title along with the use and function of a title for each chapter, the multiplication of narrators and variants on the narration of the story, as well as variations on possible endings of the story, the role of the audience, the use of a diary, of a story within a story, and of the epistolary form. Finally, I will address the question of point of view and ideology of the writer himself when writing about ambiguity, gender, and age within the context of Moroccan culture, in an effort to determine whether the discourse is socially committed, and if there is a political orientation based on social and literary alienation.
L'Enfant de sable centers around a cultural construct of the subject-object, where, because of the impact...