Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “By Fire” (tr. from the French by Rita S. Nezami) was originally published in the September 16, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

This is the second piece of fiction in translation in a row, and the third in four weeks. I haven’t checked, but this must be some kind of record. In contrast to last week’s author, though, Ben Jelloun has been translated into English for some time, though I have not read his work before.


Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “By Fire” has appeared in the September 11th issue of The New Yorker. Ben Jelloun, born in 1944, is an expatriate of Morocco living in France and writing in French. Set in an unnamed Islamic country, “By Fire” tells a young Arab man’s story: educated, but no job; in love, but no hope of marriage; the oldest son in a large family, but no hope for any of them; a citizen, but with no hope of protection from the police. What startles me about the story is Ben Jelloun’s point of view:

There was too much injustice in the country, too much inequality and humiliation.

The story makes no effort to blame the West for the young man’s problems. The dream of Canada is like a beacon for the young man’s fiancée, even though the route to Canada must be through bribing corrupt officials.

Ben Jelloun makes every effort to detail the way in which Mohammed is slowly driven to despair by the situation in his own country. The young man has not one thought that it is Israel who has caused his problems, or the United States, or France or any other outside force. His suffering is at the hands of his own countrymen: lies, corruption, destruction of his property, threats, coercion, and a severe beating bring the young man to the end of his rope.

Fire begins and ends the story: first, the young man burns his diploma, but in the end, it is himself he sets afire.

It’s the story of a simple man, like millions of others, who, after being crushed, humiliated and denied in life, became the spark that set the world ablaze.

There is a separate essay to be written about the way Ben Jelloun makes use of the word humiliation. I think there is far more to be said about how he means that word to work, but in my ignorance, I am not the one to say it.

While the story reminds me of the present situation in Egypt, and the men in Syria who have been driven to rebellion, it is actually a specific tribute to a specific man: Mohamed Bouazizi, who began the Arab Spring when he set himself ablaze in Tunisia in 2010. Bouazizi has not been the only man to set himself afire in the Arab world. Others followed in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, and we are not yet done. The Tunisian government fell, Libya rebelled against its tyrant, the government in Egypt fell, and now Syria is in flames.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s death was no ordinary death.

Ben Jelloun depends upon simplicity and a straightforward style to honor Bouazizi’s memory, and he depends upon his vision of poverty to give the story its scope.

Discovering that the story is based on a real man’s death makes it unforgettable, but in the end, it is the form of fiction which gives the story its power. Free to imagine Mohamed’s mother, brothers and girlfriend, Ben Jelloun’s style allows the story to rise above reporting to something more universal. Most of all, Ben Jelloun honors these men when he insists upon recognition for the conditions that brought them to their deaths: that poverty created of their lives a vast and crushing denial.

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By |2013-09-09T18:19:57-04:00September 9th, 2013|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tahar Ben Jelloun|5 Comments


  1. Roger September 13, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    I wanted to like this because the subject is so important, and Ben Jelloun’s Mohamed for much of the story seemed to be an interesting, vivid character. He’s foolish for burning his diploma, yet his frustration is understandable, and he is admirable for the quiet, dignified way he assumes responsibility for his family after his father’s death.

    Yet the story feels mechanical, and its ending so predictable, because Ben Jalloun chose to write it as almost a blow-by-blow depiction of the real-life Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation served as the catalyst for the Arab spring. So those who follow current events know exactly what will happen, and the parallel between the burning of the diploma and the story’s end only underscore the predictability. More like creative non-fiction (whatever exactly that is) than fiction, in my opinion, and not very creative.

  2. Betsy September 14, 2013 at 12:32 am

    Hi Roger, I agree that there’s a flatness to the writing that challenges the reader. I wonder if the low key has to do with the present level of anger, fear, conflict and extreme danger in the Arab world. To me the argument is not over whether the story is entertaining. It is over the danger that the writer himself could be in by making himself so clear.

  3. danthelawyer September 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    I have to agree with Roger’s comment, and I don’t think it was the flatness of the writing. Having just finished Anderson’s Winesburg, I noticed a similarity (I’m not for a second suggesting it was intention) in the unemotional depiction of deeply emotional people and events. This can be done well, and I think Ben Jelloun did it well.

    But as a *story*, it just felt so predictable. Even if I didn’t know anything about Bouazizi, the title of the piece, plus the photo illustration that introduced it, would have telegraphed the ending.

  4. Ken September 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    I found this very engrossing even though I was pretty sure where it was headed. I’d say that fiction of this sort is of value for its message despite being relatively flat and didactic. The ending is powerful and yet also heavy-handed. I’d be pretty bummed if this was all there was to fiction or all the New Yorker published but I’ll defend this as a certain genre that while lacking in some ways is also important to read on a political level and perhaps raises some people’s awareness.

  5. Kirk October 7, 2013 at 4:15 am

    This story left me very depressed. That’s all I can say.

    Rest in peace Mohamed.

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