Portrait Mahi Binebine

Portrait of the Artist as a Painter and Writer

In his latest novel, Cannibals, Moroccan author and painter Mahi Binebine tells a dark tale of illegal aliens, waiting on the beach of Tanger to set sails for Europe. A portrait by Katrin Schneider

In his latest novel "Welcome to Paradise", Moroccan author and painter Mahi Binebine tells a dark tale of illegal aliens, waiting on the beach of Tanger to set sails for Europe. A portrait by Katrin Schneider

photo: private copyright
Mahi Binebine - writer and painter

​​In his novel, the Moroccan writer and painter Mahi Binebine tells the story of a group of would-be illegal immigrants huddled on Tangier beach: six men from Mali, Algeria and Morocco, and one woman with her child. These people have given every penny they own to a nameless "human trafficker", and they are waiting for the signal to board the boat.

However diverse their reasons for leaving their homelands and families, they all share a single goal: to escape from a hopeless situation, by starting a new life in Europe. As they don't stand a chance of acquiring visas for the affluent part of the world, they've chosen the illegal path to what looks like freedom. For most of Binebine's protagonists, however, this journey will end in death.

Journey into death

No one knows exactly how many people attempt the dangerous illegal crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar each year, though their number probably runs into the hundreds of thousands. Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of them perish in the attempt. Though most of these individuals will appear only as statistics, or in brief news reports of bodies washed up on the beaches of Spain, Mahi Binebine's novel gives them a human face - and a history.

Writing and painting

Mahi Binebine himself was able to enter to Europe legally, to study mathematics at the University of Paris at Jussieu. After graduating in 1985, he spent eight years working as a maths teacher. During this period, he began to take an intense interest in painting and literature; for (as he says) he had time enough to do so, and he was also inspired by the Parisian artistic circles in which he moved. Since 1987, his pictures have been shown in various exhibitions, and they can now be found in public and private collections throughout the world (including the permanent collection at the Guggenheim in New York).

Cover of "Welcome to Paradise"

​​From 1994 until 1999, Mahi Binebine lived in New York, before returning to Paris for another four years. In 2002, he went back to live in his home town of Marrakech. "After Le Pen gathered strength", he explains, "France was no longer a country I could live in".

In his pictures, Binebine works with intense, vivid, hauntingly luminous colours. Red and blue tones melt and merge, revealing the outlines of human figures, people in masks, and shadowy silhouettes of female forms. In his literary work, too, women play an important role: he portrays them as strong personalities, capable of asserting their will despite any obstacles the world may place in their path.

Tales of outcasts and failures

Mahi Binebine was born in 1959 and grew up in a house in Marrakech's Old Town. His childhood left a deep impression, and it practically forced his literary themes upon him. He tells of the characters who populated his childhood cosmos: the walking wounded, outcasts and failures – or "those left footsore by life", as he puts it.

In his first novel, "Der Schlaf der Sklavin" (The Sleep of a Slave), the first-person narrator recalls Dada, his family's black slave, and the role she had played in his childhood. On nights when he couldn't get to sleep, she had told him her story: she and her brother had been abducted by slave traders and sold into slavery in Morocco. She had never had any say in her own life; never had she had any control over what happened to her body.

Mahi Binebine's second novel, "Mamayas letzte Reise" (Mamaya's Last Journey), is a homage to the most formative figure in his childhood: his mother. Abandoned by her husband, she had brought up her seven children alone – and this in the patriarchal environment of the Medina in Marrakech. Binebine has created a portrait of an old woman preparing for death – and thinking of her son, who may or may not be still alive.

Family history

Here, the author is drawing on a grim episode from his own family history; for his brother Aziz was one of the young officers who had taken part in the failed military coup against King Hassan III in 1971. For 18 years, he was imprisoned in the desert camp of Tazmamart, under conditions of unimaginable and almost indescribable brutality. Of the 56 prisoners, only half survived; among them, Aziz Binebine.

Mahi Binebine's fellow writer Tahar Ben Jelloun took this story as the basis for his controversial novel, "Das Schweigen des Lichts" ("This Blinding Absence of Light"). For Mahi Binebine himself, the terrible fate of his brother would have been too painful a subject to serve as the raw material of literature, so it seemed wise to entrust the story to his friend.

In retrospect, Binebine now regards this as a mistake, even though he feels Tahar Ben Jelloun's novel turned out well; but the controversy aroused by the book led eventually to the collapse of the writers' friendship.

Mahi Binebine has now written five novels, which have been translated into various languages, and his sixth is due to come out in France next January. It is named after a colour he loves – "Terre d'ombre brûlée" (Burnt Umber) – and it tells the story of a painter who lives in Paris.

Katrin Schneider

© Qantara.de 2003

Paintings by Mahi Binebine can be viewed on the website of Galerie Al Manar (Casablanca).

"Cannibales" was published in English as "Welcome to Paradise" (Granta Books, 2003; translation by Lulu Norman).

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Comments for this article: Portrait of the Artist as a Painter and Writer

As I read your thoughtful article I thought about how much humanity must move forward to become holistically civil. With the bounties of the earth available to everyone, this is simply no reason for a human being to have to Journey into Possible Death to obtain a better quality of life. I am an African American and what you have described sounds like escape from chattel slavery vigorously pursued during the entire time of slavery in US. Calling the people illegal aliens is not helping the situation either.

Pearl Barkley06.04.2016 | 01:55 Uhr