A winner of the Prix Goncourt, he draws upon his experiences of alienation in his native Morocco and as an immigrant in France, as well as on his insights as a psychologist, to create his powerful and controversial works – novels, poems, plays, essays and articles.
Educated in Tangier and at the Université Mohammed V in Rabat where he studied philosophy, Ben Jelloun participated in student protests in 1965. His subsequent removal to an army disciplinary camp started his writing career. His first poem was written secretly in the barracks and published in the Moroccan literary journal Souffles in 1968. In 1971, he emigrated to France and began freelancing for Le Monde and writing poetry, while pursuing his doctorate in psychiatric social work from the Université de Paris. Two years later, Harrouda, his first novel, was published.
He rose to prominence in 1985 with The Sand Child and its sequel, The Sacred Night, for which he won the Prix Goncourt in 1987. The two-volume saga explores themes of exclusion, solitude, bilingualism, gender identity, male dominance and the social and religious complexities of Moroccan culture. Themes of racism and exclusion pervade French Hospitality, 1984, a discourse on racism suffered by North Africans in France, Racism, as Explained to My Daughter, 1998, based on questions put to Ben Jelloun by his 10-year-old daughter, and Islam Explained, 2002. The politically charged This Blinding Absence of Light, 2001, set in Morocco’s Tazmamart prison where military insurgents were held in appalling conditions, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004. His recent works include a novel, Partir, 2005. He was awarded the Prix de la Paix – Peace Prize – in 2007 by the Association of the United Nations in Spain.