Dutch-Moroccan Abdelkader Benali has been described as ‘one of the Netherlands’ leading writers’. His bibliography includes over 20 novels and plays, countless essays and reviews, as well as many television programmes.
Everybody feels like an outsider sometime in their life. That consuming feeling of not belonging, sorrowful emptiness and painful loneliness. But, Dutch-Moroccan Abdelkader Benali embraced these feelings as a lifestyle and manipulated them to launch a very inspiring and successful career as a writer. Observing things from a different point of view is, in his words, what works better for him, and he gladly takes lone time far from friends and family to enjoy his personal world and elaborate on both reality and imagination. Still, for how much he can “remove” himself from the world, Benali never lets his roots, old and new, slip away. The places, the faces, and concepts in his books are never archetypes, but real entities distorted only by the mirror in his eyes.
Abdelkader, you moved to the Netherlands at the age of 4. Have you ever had the opportunity to acquaint yourself with Moroccan Literature? Which Moroccan writers have you read, if any?
Yes, I did. In fact, I know many great Moroccan writers in person. I regularly meet with some of them in Europe and others in Morocco, and I am a fan of all their work. I admire Mohammed Barrada, Yassin and Taha Adnan, the poetry of Abdellillah Salhi, the late Lmafteh, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Jalal El Hakmaoui, Reda Dalil, Youssef Amine Alalamy, Mahi Benibinne, and many many more.
In one of your interviews, you mentioned a feeling of rage you had as a child and as a teenager, and how you managed to overcome them. Do you feel Dutch-Moroccan youngsters are going through the same trial today?
Maybe. You see, in my time there was more optimism, and Moroccans in the Netherlands could be more naïve. We were pretty much everywhere across the Netherlands, but were barely “visible”. There was clearly no pressure from the Dutch society to conform or integrate, nor was there any desire from the Moroccan community to be part of the Dutch culture either. There was, however, mutual understanding. Integration was clearly not the most important thing. This created a “faux” harmony.
Today, things have changed, of course. Moroccans are more integrated and more conscious about their position in the Dutch society. They are more willing to fight racism and prejudices. And the Dutch society has become less complacent about it tolerance.
You tell about the little “fuss” you had with your mother when a teacher told you “platano” was “banana”, but your mother still wanted you to use the first. Do you ever feel compelled to say platano still today? Or now just bananas exist in your diet?
Ha, well, I still eat bananas and relative of the position where I call them bananas or platano. But what I want to say by using the story of the banana, is that changing culture means also changing the language, and I think this creates tension in the mind. My mother tongue, Tamazight, had to face stiff competition from Dutch. This experience stayed with me, to this day.
You oftentimes speak about your childhood, and how it was difficult for you to integrate yourself sometimes despite being in a “privileged position”. How difficult was it to introduce yourself as an “outsider” in your profession?
I am still an outsider and will stay an outsider. I tend very much to myself and in a way cultivate my outsider position, which for a writer is not a bad one. I can look at things and turn my back. I feel comfortable, though I still love company, love my family and friends, but in the end I prefer to be alone. That is what works for me.
Abdelkader, you call yourself a non-believer, who speaks mainly Dutch and has been living most of his life the “European Dream”. What is left of your Moroccan roots? Are they still influential in your life and work?
I really don’t care what religion people have or not have, so I want to keep this question private. I am not a huge fan of religion as an institute, have never been. And I think you can be a Moroccan and a sceptic, I believe most Moroccans are sceptics, it keeps them sane. But still this all very personal so I tend not to go too much into this question. On the other side: I love the rituals, I love the feelings and emotions of a personal religion. And for that reason, I have never felt myself out of place in Morocco.
Immigration and sports are recurring themes in your work. How did you become involved with these two themes, and in what way do these two themes go hand in hand according to you?
I loved running since the day I saw Said Aouita win at the World Championships in Rome in 1987. I was mesmerized by his speed, cunning ability to overcome any setback. What I saw was the raw power of nature transformed into a kind of beauty. And that’s where literature starts because fiction is about seeing form in beauty, creating coherence out of chaos. So running in a way became my way of giving sense to life. There is a start, there is a beginning and body takes over, helped by the soul. I spend some time running in Morocco, in Ifrane and the Middle-Atlas. That period inspired me in writing the book Sand Runner. And I still run. And write.
Are your characters a mask you use to show yourself in your books, or they are “archetypes” you met in your life?
Most of them are based on true life persons. But have a very strong connection to my own life.
Do you think writers can still influence the world around them? In such case, what are your goals and intentions?
Yes, they can, if the reader gives them a chance. Literature can bridge the gap between feeling and mind, between man and woman, between the pure and impure. Time and time literature shows us that it has important lessons to tell. For an instance, by reading Hunger Years of Mohammed Choukri I gained insight into my own shame and upbringing. That book matured me.
What is your opinion about Europe and their relationship with the Muslim world? Do you ever feel trapped in between?
I think there cannot be a full understanding of each other’s rich history and heritage without a Europe that acknowledges the contribution of Arab-Amazigh-Andalucian-Islamic civilization to the Old Continent. When we look into arts, philosophy, cuisine, music, agriculture, and science then we can speak about a Europe of Muslims.
Europe can still be a melting pot, or future isn’t as bright as we like to imagine it?
Europe has always been a melting pot, but this period is hell for people with an open mind.