La Nuit Sacrée, by Tahar Ben Jelloun, is not for the faint of heart. The story begins, “Ce qui importe c’est la vérité,” and the author maintains this principle from beginning to end. Drawing from his experience as a professor of philosophy, the Moroccan writer takes a direct look at the issue of gender inequality from all directions. Naturally, themes of violence, jealousy, love, and hate surface quickly.
Although this is a sequel to his first major success, L’Enfant de Sable, La Nuit Sacrée can be enjoyed on its own. How could you not be drawn into a novel whose premise is a woman’s struggle with her identity after her father, who raised her as a male, dies? Particularly in a country where only men could inherit a family’s wealth, the difficulties are overwhelming and numerous.
In this case, our protagonist (formerly known as Ahmed) leaves home. She never really receives a new name, which forces you to consider the character as simply a person, rather than belonging to a particular gender camp. Although she refers to herself as a woman, she is unlike any of the women around her. She struggles with the various types of captivity femaleness brings, after what could only be described as a childhood of imprisonment within a lie. Ben Jelloun does not flinch from this conundrum, and the protagonist seems to emerge from everything stronger than your average person.
Dream-like situations and dream scenes recur often, building the emotional environment brilliantly. After such a bouleversement of one’s identity, anyone would feel as if they were in a dream (or nightmare). Scenes from reality interrupt introspection with petty fights, jealousy, and acts of senseless violence, adding to the sense of ungrounded confusion. Sometimes the real violence is so severe as to be unreal. But the protagonist embraces every experience as something previously out of her reach, saying, “Je n’avais pas envie de fuir, ni meme de résister… Je n’étais pas indifférente. J’étais curieuse.”
For all the darkness and chaos, La Nuit Sacrée is a compelling and magical tale. Everyone can relate to the struggles in some way—for who has never had an identity crisis? As you read through the harsh realities, you are pulled along, forced to practice a difficult characteristic: courage. By the last page, you will feel as if you’ve accomplished something important. You will have persevered alongside the protagonist. You will have prevailed.
Carolyn Yohn translates French and Hungarian legal and academic texts into English from her office in Northern California.