Words Without Borders caught up with Fouad Laroui, whose Prix Goncourt-winning story was published in WWB's Moroccan literature issue. We spoke about creativity, dislocation, the absurd, and his forthcoming collection, The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (Deep Vellum). Words Without Borders hosted Fouad in conversation with his translator, Emma Ramadan, and the London Review of Books's Adam Shatz at the Center for the Humanities in New York City on Monday, March 21, 2016 (watch the event video and check out WWB's photos).
Words Without Borders: You left Morocco over twenty years ago. Though you have been based primarily in Europe since, much of your writing is about Morocco or Moroccans living elsewhere. As one of your protagonists asks, “Why does man distance himself from his home? Why does he make himself a foreigner?” Can you discuss both your decision to leave Morocco and your relationship with it as inspiration for your fiction?
Fouad Laroui: When I left Morocco, in 1989, nobody in my family or among my friends could understand why I did that. I had a good job, a nice flat, a car, and five cats, and I had a “career.” However I also had the feeling that something was missing. Was it because Morocco at that time was a dictatorship under Hassan II? Sometimes I felt I was suffocating. At other times, I thought that anything could happen at any time when I was walking in the street. My own father had been kidnapped in broad daylight, tortured, and finally killed in 1969. My bouts of paranoia were not entirely without merits . . . Plus, I was a busy engineer/manager who wanted to read, to learn other things, to travel. So I left. But I remained fascinated by my native country. By settling in Amsterdam, far from Morocco, I may have learned to better see it, to discern its traits more clearly. My novels are my way of being Moroccan without having to live there.
WWB: Maati, the central character in your story, “Dislocation,” wonders, “What would it be like . . . a world where everything was foreign?” He then creates a portrait of that reality by accumulating the details of his own life. His experience is one of constant dislocation, of living between worlds without being at home in either, of being highly visible through the lens of stereotype but invisible when it comes to his authentic identity (even Maati’s wife cannot accept the identity he claims for himself: “Moroccan by birth, in body, but ‘French in the head’”). Do you identify with Maati’s experience?
FL: Yes, I do identify with Maati’s experience. What he experiences that evening (the total dislocation of his life when he realizes how foreign he is, how alien the world around him is) is something I have felt, from time to time, while walking in the streets of Utrecht or Amsterdam, though never in so extreme a fashion. I have always been able to stop that process of dislocation by focusing on something tangible that was going to happen in the very near future (a good meal, a great book to be read, a nice discussion with friends . . .). But I often wondered: what if I did not stop that train of thought? What if I let the dislocation take place? Is this what they call madness? Fortunately, a writer can make those kinds of experiments with no danger to his mental health: he can imagine them and write them down . . .
WWB: Dislocation can provide a certain privileged, expansive, and, ultimately, existential perspective as it highlights the inadequacy of language and the fallacy of belonging. For Maati, the very notion of home becomes absurd—“as if one were never at home . . . a little speck of dust in an unlimited universe”—and, in the face of this, he contemplates what Camus called the only philosophical problem: that of suicide.
For both Maati and Camus, the central question becomes how to move forward in the face of “irrational disorder” (which can be so more apparent when one is constantly dislocated). Where do you find answers to this question? Can you speak a bit about your use of humor and satire to both reveal and respond to the absurd?
FL: The problem has indeed two faces: what you call “the inadequacy of language and the fallacy of belonging,” but the underlying cause (in both cases) is unique—lucidity. It is because Maati is indeed a complete stranger in the streets of Utrecht that he can experience the total lucidity you acquire when nothing makes sense. He obviously does not belong there and he does not have a mother tongue that would give him a (false) sense of purpose by its innate familiarity. The world does not make sense and there are no words to dissimulate this sorry state of affairs: the absurd is complete. Camus rightly poses the question of suicide in this context (this always amuses me because Camus was such a bon vivant . . .) but, ironically, it was Sartre who provided the adequate answer in La Nausée: “If everything is absurd then my suicide would also be absurd, therefore: why bother?” (It sounds like something Woody Allen could have said . . .)
Suicide apart, the question is indeed: how to move forward? In Dislocation, Maati is literally paralyzed, frozen stiff: he stands still in that street, in Utrecht. What makes him move is a reminiscence: he faintly remembers a gesture. It is a very simple, very gentle gesture that his wife makes from time to time, when he comes home in the evening, completely exhausted. This gesture can be seen as an illustration of love. That reinjects some sense, some meaning, in Maati’s life. By the way, at my Parisian publishing house, they were divided on that point: the publisher loved the ending (he is a sentimental old fool), but an editor strongly disagreed: she saw it as a patriarchal sleight of hand—Maati’s life gets meaning when he is able to reestablish his domination upon his wife. I was baffled by this interpretation but what can I do? As Barthes would say, the real author of the book is its reader.
WWB: “The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers” illuminates—with humor and irony—the deep-seeded biases that act as barricades to authentic communication. The protagonist, Dassoukine, stands in front of a committee who are unable to see past their own assumptions—because of the color of his skin and his clothing, to them he is either a servant or a “clown imposter.” Dassoukine finds himself voiceless, an intruder “on this discussion centered on me.”
As a writer, economist, and teacher, what do you feel are the most effective methods for challenging biases and creating pathways for understanding across barriers, particularly those related to nationality, language, race, religion, etc.?
FL: It seems to me that a very effective method consists in being better, in their own “fields,” than those who nurture all kind of biases. I was once watching a black scientist explain quantum physics on the Discovery Channel. I thought: “Show this to a bigoted racist who wouldn’t be able to understand (let alone explain) 1 percent of what this man is saying. How could he keep on feeling superior to black people?” Maybe I am naïve.
On the other hand, there can be barriers to communication even among “good” people (forget the bigoted racist). In that case, the solution is quite simple: keep on talking, keep on listening. Tell me your narrative, listen to mine. But here another problem arises (now it’s the economist talking): when one narrative has formidable economic capital, and cultural capital, and symbolic capital, etc., whereas the other narrative has almost nothing, how can we have a conversation that could bridge the gap? When it comes to the Middle East, I am surprised and I feel discouraged when I realize that only one narrative is audible in Europe and the United States.
WWB: You studied engineering at university, have a PhD in economics, and now teach literature. What is the relationship between the various disciplines in your life and your work? What do they offer each other? Has your experience with engineering and your work as an economist influenced the content or aesthetic of your writing? Has your writing influenced your work and thinking as an economist?
FL: When I was seventeen, I wanted to go to university to study literature, history and/or philosophy. At that time, I was a high school student at the French Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca. We had to preregister at French universities through the administration of the Lycée Lyautey. When I filled out the form expressing my wishes, the teacher who was collecting them read it aloud in the class and ridiculed me (“Look at what this idiot Laroui wants to study! Literature? Ha! History? Ha! Philosophy? Ha!”). Then he almost shouted at me: “Monsieur, you have the best marks in mathematics, which is the voie royale (the king’s way) to knowledge. How can you envisage studying anything but mathematics?” He tore up the form and wrote in capital letters: MATHEMATICS. The next year I was studying “mathématiques supérieures,” the year after that it was “mathématiques spéciales.” I then passed the admission exam to the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (Paris) where I got my degree in civil engineering in 1982. During all those years, studying math, physics, engineering, I never forgot my first love: I kept reading a lot—novels, biographies, philosophical treaties.
I worked as an engineer in Morocco for five years, between 1985 and 1990. At one time, I even was the (very young) general manager of the biggest phosphate mine in the world, at Khouribga. Still, I was not satisfied. I wanted to know more about all kinds of subjects. That’s when I decided to come back to Europe, as I said earlier, and start studying something different: economics. Here I must be accurate: “economics,” in the French tradition, encompasses much more than in other countries. It covers many fields that would elsewhere be classified under “sociology” or “history.” Therefore, by studying and ultimately getting a PhD in economics, I had the impression that I was involved in a sort of “general knowledge,” without boundaries, the kind of knowledge that was the rule rather than the exception from Aristotle to Voltaire, through the Renaissance, Pico de la Mirandola, Bacon, Descartes, etc.
I woke up from that dream when I started teaching at universities in the Netherlands. They were very good, but they had another view of economics: it was either Samuelson’s neoclassical synthesis or pure econometrics. In both cases, they were not much interested in, say, sociology or anthropology or philosophy . . . Once, I even met an econometrist (name withheld) who had never heard of Keynes! Knowledge was again so restricted, so specialized . . . When I got the opportunity, in 2006, to start teaching French literature and philosophy of science and media studies at the University of Amsterdam, I seized it with both hands.
To answer (at last) your question: I am not sure how all those peregrinations have influenced my writing but here are some facts: when I am writing a novel, there is a kind of blueprint on the wall of my room, with the names of all the characters, their ages, the main traits of their personalities, etc. Colored arrows show the relationships between the characters. Is this an engineer’s way of writing a novel? Maybe. There is also the tension between rationality (math, engineering, economics are based on rationality) and the irrational world my characters are often plunged into; this tension might be the product of the confrontation between the disciplines I have studied and the reality of a country, Morocco, where joyful irrationality is a daily fact of life.
WWB: Your creative works include novels, short stories, poems, a play, and essays, and you have written in French, Dutch, and English. How do you know when a piece will take the form of a poem versus a novel versus a play? Do you find that the subject matter defines the form or is it an instinctual decision? Likewise, what factors determine the language that you write in?
FL: When I start writing, I know it will become a short story when I have the last sentence resonating in my head before actually penning a single word. (There is always the temptation to restrict oneself to that last sentence, which would then be the only one, but who would publish it?) When I have an engineer’s blueprint encumbering my walls, to the surprise of my cats, I suspect it will become a novel. As for poems, I have no idea: they just happen. Essays are different: I want to say something on a given subject (say, Islamism), therefore I build a logical argumentation on a piece of paper and then I put some flesh on it.
As for languages, French is the most natural one for me. It is the only language in which I can use my own “style.” I write poems in Dutch so that I am sure nobody I know would be able to read them. (I feel uneasy at the idea that people actually read poems. It is an intrusion into somebody else’s soul.) I do not write in Arabic because classical Arabic, though beautiful and rich and elegant, is too complicated for me. I use English for my scientific papers because it is the lingua franca of science.
WWB: Has the fact that you are multilingual influenced your work with translators? In what ways?
The first translations were in Dutch. The funny thing is that the Dutch translator was living in a small village in France and I was living in Amsterdam . . . He used to fax me a long list of questions and I answered. However I could not influence his style: when I read the Dutch versions of my novels, they seem to me to be cruder, less polished, than the original. It may have something to do with the language or with the way the Dutch express themselves: frankly, honestly, without circumvolutions. I also work with my Italian translator—I mean: she asks me questions and I answer—and I am very happy with the result: the Italian text sounds almost like the original. The same goes with my German and—now—English translator: because I can read these languages, I usually understand the dilemmas the translators are facing, so I try to facilitate their work by not being too pernickety.
WWB: Are there writers—French, Moroccan, or otherwise—with whom you feel your own work is in conversation?
FL: Yes, but usually they are dead (Diderot, for instance, or the Moroccan novelist Driss Chraibi), which makes the conversation seriously one-sided. I used to go and visit Driss Chraibi once a year in his retreat in the Drôme. It was always interesting and stimulating. Among the living writers, I like Leila Lalami and I sometimes have the feeling that we have the same literary approach to Morocco.
WWB: As this will be your first time in New York, are there any specific places or activities that you’re looking forward to experiencing?
I know it is ridiculous but, for some reason, I wish to see all the Vermeers of the world at least once in my lifetime. There are a couple of them in New York . . . Let’s pray nobody steals them before I arrive.
Read Fouad Laroui's The Curious Case of Dassoukine's Trousers in our March 2016 issue.
Fouad Laroui is an economist and writer born in 1958 in Oujda, Morocco. Over the past twenty years, Laroui has been consistently building an oeuvre centered around universally contemporary themes: identity in a globalized world, dialogue/confrontation between cultures, and the individual vs. the group. With ten novels and five collections of short stories written in French, plus two collections of poems written in Dutch, a play, many essays and scientific papers (written in French or English), his on-going ambitious literary output has been recognized with many awards, including the Prix Albert Camus, Prix Mediterranée, Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle, Grande médaille de la Francophonie de l’Académie française, Prix du meilleur roman francophone, Premio Francesco Alziator (Italy), Samuel-Pallache-Prijs (The Netherlands), and the E. du Perron Prijs (The Netherlands).