Father of The Bribe

Greed swamps a simple, moral Moroccan man in 'Corruption'

[Corruption by Tahar Ben Jelloun; The New Press 1995]
in the San Jose Metro Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 1995

In Tahar Ben Jelloun's new novel, Corruption, the underlying question is: What makes a man? He who maintains his integrity in the face of widespread corruption; or he who is willing to conform in order to provide for his family?

What the question really begs is, how do you deal with being well-adjusted in a society that is morally bankrupt? Ben Jelloun, one of Morocco's most prolific dissident writers, argues that the Third World is rife with corruption's cancer, yet his short novel may also be read as a metaphor for the dirty practices of business and politics in our own society, where bribes, payoffs and the nefarious influence of Washington lobbyists have perverted the political process. Being well-adjusted to this sordid reality means that most of us remain silent, rejecting activism and protest for complacency.

Corruption is the latest in The New Press' distinguished series of international fiction, which includes translations of the best contemporary novelists writing in France. Ben Jelloun, who was born in Fez and emigrated to France in 1961, has chosen to write in French rather than Arabic, though he returns to Morocco frequently. His novel Sacred Night won France's coveted Prix Goncourt in 1987, and since that time he has spoken out against the religious fanaticism rampant in North Africa, particularly in Algeria, where the Algiers-based Armed Islamic Group (GIA) has claimed responsibility for a series of bombing attacks in Paris.

The bureaucrat protagonist in Ben Jelloun's story is struggling against the silence of the moral majority in Morocco, which accepts corruption as an inevitable fact of life. Mourad works in the Ministry of Development, headquartered in Casablanca, where he is responsible for approving or rejecting construction permits. Although the job comes with a grandiloquent title (Deputy Director of Planning, Prospects and Progress), Mourad's meager salary barely supports a family of four. He survives on credit, just making ends meet.

The novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun

The novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun

The penury of their circumstances causes Mourad's wife, Hlima, to constantly upbraid him in a loud, obnoxious voice: "You're not a man!" Hlima's three sisters are all married to wealthy men who know how to work within the Moroccan system, which encourages graft. Hlima wonders why she married Mr. Integrity in the first place.

Mourad wonders, too. They met at university; Hlima was certain that Mourad's degrees in economics and engineering would lead to golden opportunities. But to land a job in a private firm, you have to be willing to network; you need the kind of connections that Mourad never possessed.

In the beginning, there was love and lots of sex. Hlima produced a copy of Sheikh Nafzaoui's manual of Muslim erotology, with its 29 positions, which the couple went through quickly. Then, when Hlima had her menses and asked Mourad to perform sodomy, he refused, resulting in his wife's first attack on his manhood: "You're not a man!" Before long, Mourad narrates, his life would be turned into a living hell.

After years of pressure both at home and in the office, where Mourad's underling Haj Hamid is obviously successful, something has to give. Although there has never been a crack in Mourad's resistance, he now struggles with opposing inner voices. "So, change the world!" the good voice cries. "No, change your life," cries the bad one.

Mourad has always felt that Haj Hamid, who has enriched himself with countless payoffs, "is more Moroccan than I am. He knows how to talk, he knows the art of enveloping things in poetic and sometimes religious formulas that make those he's talking to giddy. ... As they say in Arabic, 'His tongue is a blade.' "

It is unsettling that Mourad feels less Moroccan than his co-worker, that because he is so unlike most of the men around him he questions even his national-cultural identity. Mourad believes that money worship turns everything to rot; often his condemnation of corruption comes off as a fair description of ordinary business practices, in which deceit and nepotism make a success of the man willing to play the game, while the man with fortitude falls behind. But Mourad knows the system is stronger than he is; either he adjusts to it or ...

In Morocco, as in many developing countries, government salaries are so low that functionaries are forced to take a second job or accept bribes. Ben Jelloun's narrative implies that if there were ever a government crackdown on this "parallel economy," the country would grind to a halt. Mourad's decision to take a bribe is a turning point that will effectively end his marriage, jeopardize his relationships with a few honest friends, and even bring on a strange, psychosomatic skin disorder, which his doctor diagnoses as a reaction to stress and feelings of guilt.

When Mourad accepts his first bribe, he hides the envelope in his copy of Sartre's Being and Nothingness, as if that book contained all the existential philosophy to explain his course of action and its consequences. Because of the novel's simplicity and its focus on the choices a man must make between his inner beliefs and the demands of society, Corruption is being touted by its publisher as a morality tale reminiscent of Albert Camus' The Stranger.

Although there is a world of indifference between Meursault's apathy in The Stranger--his refusal to take control of his own destiny--and Mourad's more educated decisions, the comparison between the two novels is not without foundation. Ben Jelloun's political fable ultimately puts man's conscience on trial.