The setting is Morocco in the 1950’s and the story is both universal and particular to the Moroccan society.
Islamic law and custom dictated to whom a father left his property and those laws were patently clear; the heir was to be male. What was one to do if their family consisted of a wife and seven daughters? Hajji Ahmed determined to have a son, forced his wife to undergo a variety of "desperate ordeals" to assure the birth of a boy.
"He consulted physicians, fakirs, charlatans, quakes from every region of the country. He even took his wife to a Marabout tomb and had her stay there for seven days and seven nights on a diet of dry bread and water. She sprinkled herself with she-camel's urine and scattered the ashes of seventeen kinds of incense on the sea."
Determined that his property would not pass to his brothers he decided that irrespective of the sex of the yet unborn eighth child he would celebrate the birth of a son. A midwife is sworn to secrecy, as is his wife, and when the child is born a girl she is named Mohammed Ahmed and Hajii Ahmed celebrates the birth of his son in grand style.
In true Moroccan tradition a storyteller tells Ahmed’s story.
He gathers his audience by telling them that he is the owner of Ahmed's notebook. It is within this notebook that the story and its secrets reside. The notebook was, according to the storyteller, entrusted to him just before Ahmed died.
"He made me swear not to open it until forty days after his death, long enough for him to die completely."
Day after day he tells the story of Ahmed's childhood and youth, his privileges as a male compared to his sisters’ position in their circumscribed world.
Tahar Ben Jelloun's narrative poses questions of gender, the rights of woman in North Africa, colonialism, a person’s identity, and Islamic law. This is all done within the constraints of the story.
Despite the binding of her breasts, the privileges she enjoys as a male, the despotic manner she rules over the household, Ahmed's life becomes suffocating. She has lost her identity. This gender loss, which was fostered on her by her father, must be similar to transgendered people who feel that their exterior belies their real identity. In the story Ahmed's greatest difficulties begin with her sexual stirrings.
Early into the story another teller of the story who claims that he is the one who truly knows the story confronts our storyteller. When this individual no longer is there to tell the story the listeners cannot let go before they know the ending. Three of them become tellers of the tale.
Each of these tellers relates a different ending. Their stories are infused with magical realism. As an acknowledgement to Jorge Luis Borges, Borges arrives from Buenos Aires to add his own interpretation to the tale.
The story’s power resides in the lyrical narrative, the layers of deception that are so well woven into the tale and the realization of how the story is also a metaphor for life under Islamic rule in Morocco.
This is a powerful book that works on a number of levels— the loss of self, stolen identities, the inadequacy of stories to determine just one ending that will fit. As a metaphor we see identities preempted by individuals, society, colonization and I’ll add biology.
Ahmed's story remains with me as a reminder of how stories are often thwarted before they are realized..