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.
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.