Mohammed Khair-Eddine

An Intimate Look at Berber Culture

His name inevitably comes up in any discussion of contemporary Moroccan literature: Mohammed Khair-Eddine. His last novel, first published in France seven years after his death, was now also published in German. By Mourad Kusserow

drawing by Aourik
Mohammed Khair-Eddine, the "Moroccan Rimbaud"

​​This Moroccan Rimbaud, who was born in 1941 in the south Moroccan Berber town of Tafraout and died in 1995 in Rabat, was not only an uncompromising adept in "guérilla linguistique, he was also motivated by a belief in the mystical authority of language.

In 1967, while searching for new forms of expression that would revolutionize French-language Maghreb literature, he achieved his literary breakthrough with the roman-poème "Agadir."

Iconoclastic language, explosive images

In addition to his poetic oeuvre, Khair-Eddine’s legacy consists primarily of a series of powerful novels; everything that flowed from his pen constituted a brilliant ramification of his Agadir novel, in which he uses iconoclastic language and explosive images to describe the violence of the earthquake that destroyed the cosmopolitan Atlantic city in late February 1960.

The novels simultaneously serve as a platform for Khair-Eddine to formulate his vehement critique of the ruling oligarchy, who took advantage of the period of social upheaval to assert their own egotistical interests.

By harnessing the revolutionary power of language, he tried to warn his Maghreb countrymen of the dangers of superstition, intolerance and ignorance.

Post-mortem publication

His last novel, first published in France seven years after his death, now published in German under the title "Es war einmal ein glückliches Paar" ("Once Upon a Time There Was a Happy Couple") centers on a "happy couple" who spend their retirement years against the majestic backdrop of the Djebel Lekest mountains, in a kind of earthly paradise where the weather and the blue of the sky determine the rhythm of being and where people have known since time immemorial that: "As long as the wells are full, the village will live."

With this book, which is rife with autobiographical reminiscences, Khair-Eddine returns to the world of the Anti-Atlas mountains, which he left as a youth to follow his star to Agadir, Casablanca and then into French exile – apparently in the end even fleeing from himself.

The simple everyday life of the "happy couple," Bouchaib and "his old woman," who have stayed together for more than three decades even though the marriage has remained childless – is taken up by daily tea ceremonies and the preparation of traditional meals.

True monogamy, true love

"And he loved only her, which is remarkable in a country where one tends to love all women. He knew how to give love meaning. Others, as soon as they saw that she was not going to bear any children, would have cast out such a barren wife. But not him!"

An exotic fantasy realm opens up for the reader when he eavesdrops on the conversations between the two. Bouchaib, Berber poet and storyteller, spends his days writing a long poem honoring a local miracle-working marabout in "Tifinagh," the alphabet of the Tuareg Berbers.

In-between times he not only reminisces about his eventful life in the big cities of the North, but also tells of the American landing in 1942 near Casablanca and the bloody battle for Moroccan independence.

"Modernity has had the last word"

He looks back at the catastrophic earthquake in Agadir and the exodus of men of working age to Europe – with all of its negative implications for the Berber villages of the South, where only women, children and old people were left behind, and were soon at the mercy of the arrogance and capriciousness of the nouveau riche who returned to Morocco.

The reader is brought back to present-day reality when the old couple ultimately conclude that they have grown old happily in their village, although modern life in the form of alcohol and drug addiction, tourism and greed, cars, concrete and electricity have long made inroads there: "Modernity has had the last word, what a shame! Actually, it’s not the village itself that’s dying, no! It is its soul."

Khair-Eddine is not a writer of simple fates, even if in this novel he abstains for once from reducing the world to rubble.

Ignorance of the Maghreb masses

But nevertheless, his quiet, almost lyrical storytelling gives way gradually to angry disappointment at the backwardness and ignorance of the Maghreb masses, for whom magic and religion are all that count: "but since they don’t know anything about either one, they just lurch along, regaling each other with simpleminded sayings."

His tone becomes even harsher when he reproaches the Berbers for their failures, accusing them of having sufficed themselves ever since their retreat from Islamic Spain in 1492 with their mystical past, without asserting themselves against the hegemony of Arabophone cultures in the countries where they originated.

Asked the question: "But whatever happened to the Almoravids, the Almohads, those great ancestors?" he answers with a quote from Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun: "When a habitation or a nation is Arabicized, it degenerates, and when it has degenerated, it is no longer inhabitable."

Love for the Berber homeland

His love for his Berber homeland, central to all of his work, is once again given strong expression here. It is unfortunate that Mohammed Khair-Eddine would not live to see the Renaissance of the Berbers and the official recognition of Amazigh (Berber) culture and language in Morocco.

But he was nonetheless able through his published novels to bring us a great deal closer to this subtle web woven of reality and dreams, of memories and myths, the world of the South Moroccan Amazighs – which in Berber means "free people."

Mourad Kusserow

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung, August 10, 2004

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Mohammed Khair-Eddine: Es war einmal ein glückliches Paar. Verlag Donata Kinzelbach, Mainz 2004. 192 pages.

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