What Does it Take to Set a Life on Fire?
When the September 16th issue of the New Yorker arrived, I started flipping the pages until I saw "By Fire," a work of fiction, by Tahar Ben Jelloun, a noted Morroccan writer. I must admit that I do not avidly read fiction, even though I edit a magazine that publishes works of fiction along with non-fiction content such as art, film and book reviews. Yet, as I started reading the short story, I was transfixed by its main character, Mohamed: on top of day-to-day misfortunes and harassments by the police, among other injustices at the hands of the state, he struggles to support his family and care for his sick mother. The more I continued reading the more I sympathized with Mohamed; I saw him as a true hero. However, by the middle of the story, this main character become more and more familiar to me, someone I had perhaps known or read about in the past. I continued reading to the end, and without much guessing, I assumed it was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in protest of the harassments and humiliation he was subject to. And who could forget such a monumental death that sparked the Arab Spring. My conclusion is an educated guess, for Tahar Ben Jelloun never tells his reader the inspiration for his short story.
I was also taken by Ben Jelloun’s prose, narration, and structure, which all made the short story more effective than any manifesto I have read. Many of the "supposed" progressive-minded intellectuals long for the old days of dictatorships. They hope the Arab peoples, whether they are in the Near East or North Africa, will forget their painful stories which are essentially similar to Mohamed Bouazizi's story.
Elie Chalala for Al Jadid Magazine
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ALJADID MAGAZINE (www.aljadid.com)
To read the story, click on the link below. Access may be restricted to subscribers of the New Yorker print issue.