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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 2 : Automne/Hiver 2003-2004
Article ©2004, Christian Flaugh

Christian Flaugh, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Identity Betrayed: Negotiations of the Freak in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s L’enfant de sable

“Dans une société morale, bien structurée, non seulement chacun est à sa place, mais il n’y a absolument pas de place pour celui ou celle, surtout celle qui, par volonté ou par erreur, par esprit rebelle ou par inconscience, trahit l’ordre.”
L’enfant de sable, Tahar Ben Jelloun.

“[T]he extraordinary body is fundamental to the narratives by which we make sense of ourselves and of our world.”
Freakery, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Historically, freaks connote betrayal. Deviations from normalized notions of the body purportedly justified by laws of nature, these individuals were once labeled “freaks of nature,” or bizarreries de la nature.1 However, recent studies in identity have theorized freaks to be a culturally constructed icon of deviance – “freaks of culture” – born of systems of exclusion that maintain collective, normative sociocultural identities such as “woman” or “able-bodied” (Garland-Thomson 10). This betrayal of the social order arises from their ability to negotiate categories of identity and to occupy more than one such category, which, in truth, reveals their particular relationship to fluidity and plurality. Instead of being a threat, freaks betray truths about static, sociocultural collective identity through their inevitable traversal not only through categories but also spheres and bodies: as such, freaks represent an identity that is diasporic. They are perpetually involved in and embody the individual and universal process of identity negotiation.

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s L’enfant de sable (1985) contains a poignant representation of the relationship between freaks and identity. In this article, I argue that the freak characters of this Moroccan novel represent diasporic identity. More specifically, I demonstrate how the inter-gendered protagonist, Ahmed/Zahra, echoes the freak icon through his/her negotiation of categories of identity.2 This particular negotiation and that of various spheres and bodies are the means by which the protagonist comes to understand truths of his/her diasporic identity. Furthermore, I prove that this understanding is most poignantly attained through the protagonist’s bodily negotiations with his/her crippled and epileptic cousin turned wife, Fatima. This lesson learned leads to a reinterpretation of the freak and of this text’s opening epigraph: the freak is neither an aberrance nor une bizarrerie separate from society, but an embodiment and representation of the diasporic identity “normally” integral to the self.

In her introductory essay to the collection Freakery (1996), Rosemarie Garland-Thomson interrogates historical definitions of the freak by locating a source of the association with aberrance:

By constituting the freak as an icon of generalized embodied deviance, the exhibitions also simultaneously reinscribed gender, race, sexual aberrance, ethnicity, and disability as inextricable yet particular exclusionary systems legitimized by bodily variation – all represented by the single multivalent figure of the freak. Thus, what we assume to be a freak of nature was instead a freak of culture. (10, my emphasis)

While Garland-Thomson’s analysis designates the nineteenth-century human oddity spectacle as one of the primary culprits behind the development of freak identity, she also highlights an important sociocultural trend in identity formation. In broader terms, Garland-Thomson argues that the construction of the freak as icon was deemed justifiable due more to violations of cultural rather than “natural” notions of the body. In other words, because freaks strayed from categories of identity corresponding to contemporary rubrics of “gender, race, sexual aberrance, ethnicity, and disability,” their bodies were deemed symbols of deviance, forever moving between and away from constructed norms. Society assigned a generalized ideology of deviance to these bodies and made of them not the Other but the “Absolute Other” (Fiedler 17).

However, this deviance is in its most elementary sense movement; and for the freak, it is a movement between categories. A classic example is the bearded lady who moves into the category of “woman” due to similarity of female biological nature (breasts, genitalia), but moves out of “woman” and into “man” due to society’s deeming of secondary sex characteristics (facial hair) as “unwomanly” or “manly.” While the bearded lady is, for her abundance of facial hair (contrived or not), one of the more visually apparent movements away from collective identity, she nevertheless reveals a shared truth in the existence of many contemporary women that Judith Butler addresses in her work on the performance of constructed, gendered identities: “those who fail to do their gender are rightly punished” (273). In the case of the bearded lady, society punishes her by relegating her to the margins. Wanting to remain as faithful as possible to the role of “woman” in order to avoid this punishment, many women bleach or wax away their facial hair in order to hide their betrayal. In truth, this parallel between the freak icon and the “contemporary woman” demonstrates how the freak’s more obvious violation betrays the collective identity scripted for women by revealing its artificial and arbitrary foundation of stasis, exclusion, and impossibility.

Written more than a decade before Garland-Thomson’s essay, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s L’enfant de sable establishes a similar parallel between the phenomena of exclusion and betrayal in relationship to the construction of identity. This comparison is most readily evident in the following portion of the opening epigraph: “il n’y a absolument pas de place pour celui ou celle, surtout celle qui, par volonté ou par erreur, par esprit rebelle ou par inconscience, trahit l’ordre” (154). Ben Jelloun’s novel is in fact a literary representation of Garland-Thomson’s argument as it depicts the ways in which the protagonist, Ahmed/Zahra, experiences exclusion, all the while betraying and negotiating identity. The novel narrates the life story of the inter-gendered individual who is born female but trained to perform (and believe in) the role of “man” for reasons of parental greed and inheritance. The protagonist wears the mask of “man” successfully until a series of life events and existential self-examination (to be discussed later in this analysis) begin the crumbling of his/her fixed identity. During and after these events, the protagonist spends the better part of his/her narrative existence moving through spheres and experiences in search of an “original and true” identity. While the movement through identities and spheres is what results inevitably in his/her label and performance as a human oddity, it eventually reveals to the protagonist the truths of his/her individual identity.

Ahmed/Zahra’s identification with iconic freaks appears throughout the novel, but is most explicit in the chapters that recount the events that unfold in Oum Abbas’s cirque forain where the protagonist performs both genders in a musical freak spectacle that echoes classic performances in freak shows.3 Even the chapter titles recall the lowbrow culture associated with freak shows: “L’homme aux seins de femme,” or “The man with woman’s breasts” (Chapter 11), transforming into “La femme à la barbe mal rasée,” or “The woman with the poorly-shaven beard” (Chapter 12). The first of these titles harkens back to the occupation of multiple identity categories due to homonymic similarity, as it can also be understood as “L’homme au sein de femme,” interpreted as “The man at the heart of woman.”

This particular association with identity and a constant movement between categories makes the freak, in this case Ahmed/Zahra, a total representation of what has been argued as “diasporic identity.” In The Negotiated Self: The Dynamics of Identity in Francophone Caribbean Narrative (1990), Anne Malena theorizes diasporic identity by revealing the inevitability of movement and the impossibility of stasis in individualized identity. She writes, “the self undergoes a never ending process of formation that resists the totalizing and immobilizing force of any collective identity which, in turn, can only be seen as dynamic, forever open to change” (1). What makes this identity specifically diasporic and relevant to this study is not solely the typical associations of movement in, of, and around a diaspora.

This diasporic identity resembles diasporas--such as the Jewish diaspora--for the recurrent notion of a path away from an origin, a constant “éloignement” from a home (Safran 83). Like this diaspora, individual identity can never return to its original location or form because the self continually traverses new spheres and negotiates experiences that perpetually transform it. And while diasporas in the traditional sense are often born of expulsion by external forces, the diasporic self moves through cultural spheres largely of its own volition contributing to other identity-forming processes by encountering other bodies: “The subject is […] engaged in his or her own […] process, the figure of a migrant whose peregrinations have a ripple effect upon other […] processes” (20). This very individualized process of identity formation and movement betrays the fallacy of identity specified in the first Malena citation: it resists the “totalizing and immobilizing force of any collective identity” that is based on systems of exclusion by revealing the normalcy of individuality.

While Malena’s “never ending process of formation” necessitates movement, it also involves plurality. The passages through multiple “semiospheres” (or, semiotic-cultural spheres) contribute to the development of identity because of the plurality the self encounters in these different cultural spheres (22). This cultural plurality has been addressed in texts specific to the Caribbean such as Éloge de la créolité (1989) but also in works like Maghreb pluriel (1983) that are geographically connected to Ben Jelloun’s novel. However, both of these works theorize the multiple historical and cultural influences that make of regions cultural mosaics representative of an “incontrovertible plurality” (Harvey 238). Françoise Lionnet highlights in her work Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity (1995) the relationship between the individual and plurality. Inspired largely by feminist and postcolonial studies, Lionnet examines the individual’s existence in culturally specific social settings: “The postcolonial subject thus becomes quite adept at braiding all the traditions at its disposal, using the fragments that constitute it in order to participate fully in a dynamic process or transformation” (5). Here, Lionnet emphasizes the individual’s participation in a dynamic process informed by multiple traditions. This reference to multiple traditions permits a connection back to Malena’s multiple spheres, thereby unveiling that the self both braids and is a continually growing braid of multiple influences. The reference to traditions also recalls Garland-Thomson’s discussion of the multiple systems of exclusion that constitute the multivalent figure of the freak. In short, the freak’s continuous passage through and negotiation of multiple traditions of collective identity are what make the freak the quintessential embodiment of diasporic identity. Furthermore, it emphasizes “the processes that produce the personal and make it historically and politically unique” (Lionnet 4).

The protagonist of Ben Jelloun’s L’enfant de sable is a literary representation that betrays the fallacy of collective identity by fully embodying the theory of diasporic identity. Through narration of the protagonist’s encounters and passages, the text discloses the individual negotiations that compose the freak’s identity. Because Ahmed/Zahra’s identity is specifically linked to the ability of a body to perform or house a particular gender, it is necessary to examine the body’s various traversals. In an engaging essay on the role of the body in L’enfant de sable, Robert Harvey theorizes the importance of bodily negotiations in this novel:

[Ahmed/Zahra’s] body is plural […], as Tahar Ben Jelloun […] is adamant about showing. A node among others in the rhizome of desire, the corporeal machine’s profusion of parts extends out, its openings connecting it to other bodies. These multiple bodily negotiations are so often the focus of Ben Jelloun’s narrative that the sand child’s body could be more accurately identified as the novel’s main character with Ahmed/Zahra positioned as the body’s perplexed conductor. (238)

Harvey refers to a plurality that is localized to the body (“corporeal machine”) and that moves out (“extends out”) and negotiates (“connecting with”) other bodies. The bodies with which Ahmed/Zahra interacts are, aside from being portrayed as betrayals of cultural norms, associated with “the rhizome of desire.” This desire, while arguably Freudian, is, in the spirit of negotiation, one of interacting with bodies or of participating in the intertwined and complex structure represented by the rhizome but localized to the “profusion of [body] parts.”4 This very interaction results in and echoes Malena’s on-going construction of identity, only here it is explicitly attached to the body. This attachment is what Harvey uses as permission to rewrite the identity of the protagonist as the sand child’s body and Ahmed/Zahra as its conductor.

Ben Jelloun’s narrative traces many bodily negotiations conducted by the protagonist. However, one of the most significant is the marriage of the inter-gendered protagonist to his/her epileptic and crippled cousin, Fatima, for it exemplifies the process of diasporic identity at work in the negotiation of freak bodies. First and foremost, the union reveals the freak protagonist’s ability to negotiate traditions of identity connected to gender. Fully aware of his/her constructed (and presumably static identity), Ahmed/Zahra wields the power of “man” accorded to him by insisting that his/her parents concede to his/her decision to marry, and specifically to wed Fatima: “Père, tu m’as fait homme, je dois le rester. Et comme dit notre Prophète bien-aimé, ‘un musulman complet est un homme marié’” (51).

While Ahmed/Zahra’s actions are motivated by a desire to punish his family through the manipulation of religious and cultural traditions, they have greater consequences for the static and impossible identity the protagonist continues to perform. In short, these actions begin to force the protagonist out of an artificial collective identity and into an individual diasporic identity. It begins when Fatima expresses her gratitude to Ahmed/Zahra for saving her from a family that objectified her as deviant and disabled:

Tout le monde dans la famille s’était habitué à la voir se cogner la tête contre des murs invisibles. Personne ne s’émouvait ni ne s’inquiétait. On disait : «  Tiens ! Cette crise est plus violente que celle de la semaine dernière… Ça doit être la chaleur !…  » Elle passait sa crise dans sa petite solitude et tout était à sa place. (74)

However, when Fatima thanks the protagonist, she establishes a pivotal link between the two: “Merci de m’avoir sortie de l’autre maison. Nous serons frère et sœur ! Tu as mon âme et mon cœur, mais mon corps appartient à la terre et au diable qui l’a dévasté!” (76). While Fatima’s proclamation confers her soul and heart to Ahmed/Zahra and establishes her body as deformed and of the devil, she also identifies a particular type of connection that binds them. Ignoring their conjugal relationship of husband and wife and their familial relationship of cousins, she chooses instead the connection of “frère et soeur,” or “brother and sister,” which points to a similarity of origin and experience shared only by siblings.

However, their sharing is greater than that of typical siblings. It instead refers to an identity they both possess for having bodies that are trahisons de l’ordre. This identity is the one that Ahmed/Zahra has not yet fully accepted but which s/he doubts increasingly because of the presence of Fatima: “Je commençais à douter de moi-même et de mon apparence. Était-elle au courant ? Voulait-elle précéder le discours que j’avais mentalement préparé pour l’avertir sans lui dévoiler mes secrets ?” (76). S/he confesses later that, because of this similarity, Fatima’s presence is troubling – “[l]a présence de Fatima me troublait beaucoup” – but this does not keep the protagonist from observing and eventually attempting to examine Fatima’s genitals while she sleeps (77). This observation is not the same as the gawking typical of historical spectacles such as freak shows or medical theatres, for the protagonist does not aim to objectify Fatima by visually confirming her deviance. Instead, Ahmed/Zahra hopes to understand more about this body that is so similar and curiously familiar.

In his further analysis of bodily negotiations, Robert Harvey states that the protagonist’s actual discovery is quite different from what s/he expected to find (237). Ben Jelloun’s text concurs:

J’essayais un jour de voir pendant qu’elle dormait si elle ne s’était pas excisée ou cousu les lèvres du vagin. Je soulevai doucement les draps et découvris qu’elle portait une espèce de gaine forte autour du bassin, comme une culotte de chasteté, blindée, décourageant le désir ou alors le provoquant pour mieux le casser” (76-77).

Fatima’s genitalia, like Ahmed/Zahra’s, are untouched. Furthermore, they are protected behind a fortified mask, as are Ahmed/Zahra’s by the mask of “man.” Through this encounter with another body, the protagonist begins to understand how their similarity is not simply due to their untouched and protected genitalia, but to their ability to not occupy the expected position: Ahmed/Zahra as the “man at the heart of woman” who wields power; Fatima as the crippled yet fully abled and empowered woman in a phallocentric society who controls her sexual organs (and therefore her identity) by wearing a formidable chastity undergarment.

The final coup to Ahmed/Zahra’s identity is in Fatima’s last words that in fact continue the initial relationship she establishes:

“J’ai toujours su qui tu es, c’est pour cela, ma sœur, ma cousine, que je suis venue mourir ici, près de toi. Nous sommes toutes les deux nées penchées sur la pierre au fond du puits sec, sur une terre stérile, entourées de regards sans amour. Nous sommes femmes avant d’être infirmes, ou peut-être nous sommes infirmes parce que femmes…, je sais notre blessure… Elle est commune… Je m’en vais… Je suis ta femme et tu es mon épouse… Tu seras veuf et moi…, disons que je fus une erreur… pas très grave, une petite errance immobilisée…” (80-81).

Now referring to Ahmed/Zahra as her sister or female cousin, Fatima describes their shared identity in a negative lexicon that reinforces the exclusion they have both felt not only for being female, but for being part of a group of freaks or pariahs. More specifically, they are women who fall outside of society’s construction of “woman,” on whose bodies society’s “regards sans amour” have inscribed infirmity.

And yet it is this particular bodily negotiation that in uniting two freaks pushes Ahmed/Zahra out of the performance of a false collective identity into the living of an individual, diasporic identity. While Ahmed/Zahra thought Fatima was weak, s/he has instead learned the opposite: “Cette femme, parce que handicapée, s’était révélée plus forte, plus dure et plus rigoureuse que tout ce que j’avais prévu” (79). When paired with the novel’s descriptions of her seizures and her gait, this description both confirms Fatima’s physical status and recalls Garland-Thomson’s classifications of freak icons. Fatima herself identifies her body as deformed by locating her body in the tradition of oddities through the use of a vocabulary specific to freaks: “une erreur… pas très grave, une petite errance immobilisée” (80-81). However, it is clear that Fatima is far from disabled as it is her ability to understand her own identity that eventually enables Ahmed/Zahra to leave behind the mask of “man” in order to pursue his/her individual identity. As such, this final passage of Fatima, by virtue of its rhetoric of inclusiveness of the marginal and its mix of gender-determined nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, betrays the fallacy of the collective identity of “woman” by revealing the truth of an individual’s diasporic identity.

As this argument has shown, the freak’s connection to identity is quite particular and is best summarized by the second epigraph of this essay: the extraordinary body is the means to self-comprehension. For my purposes, this means that the freak is the vehicle by which truths of identity, and specifically diasporic identity, are revealed. First, Ahmed/Zahra’s movement through and braiding together of identity categories, a movement that traditionally bestows upon an individual the label of “freak,” unveils identity not as static and collective but malleable and individual. Furthermore, the freak protagonist’s negotiations of multiple spheres and traditions coupled with his/her movement through identity categories exposes his/her identity as fluid and plural. Last, the freak protagonist’s negotiations of both his/her own body and of Fatima’s body are a particular means by which diasporic identity is negotiated as the self, represented by Ahmed/Zahra, becomes aware of his/her subjectivity through Fatima’s own understanding of herself. In this respect, the freak’s original betrayal becomes a revelation of identity’s diasporic nature explained by both the freak’s body and identity. This very explanation is a means by which freaks are revalidated. No longer icons of deviance, these bizarreries de la nature become the “tribes of interpreters […], translators of the dissemination of texts and discourses” on truths of identity (Bhabha 141).

CHRISTIAN FLAUGH is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Specializing in Francophone and Nineteenth-century French studies, he is currently completing his dissertation, Francophone Freaks: Embodiments and Passages of Diasporic Identity in the Late Twentieth-century Francophone Novel. Christian also holds an M.A. in French from Middlebury College and is a co-founder of and performer for the touring educational theatre troupe, Le Théâtre de la Chandelle Verte (chandelleverte.tripod.com).


1   For concurrent etymological definitions, consult the entries for monstre, merveilles de la nature, and phénomènes de foire in Le Grand Robert (Paris: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1985).

2   I use “his/her” and similar combinations of gender-driven terminology in order to reflect the inter-gendered nature of the protagonist.

3   Consult Robert Bogdan’s Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) for a detailed history of the modes of presentation used in human oddity spectacles.

4   The interaction established in Harvey’s argument becomes increasingly relevant as it emphasizes not only the importance of the body but of the negotiations and the movement between them that, as Malena points out, result in identity. Furthermore, Harvey’s use of “rhizome” reinforces further the fusion of Caribbean theories of plural and diasporic identity and Maghrebian texts as this trope has, since Deleuze and Guatarri’s conception of it, been used by many Caribbean authors to refer to the region’s complex plurality.


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