An accomplished long-distance runner, Benali is always on the move. Before he came to London, he ran the Marrakech half marathon in an hour and a half. Morocco also provided the scenery for his debut novel Wedding by the Sea (in Dutch: Bruiloft aan Zee (1997)), which launched him into the Dutch literary scene at the age of 21. In the novel Benali created alluring images of migrants returning to, what he calls, ‘their authentic place’.
Having moved from Morocco to the Netherlands himself at 4 years old, he argues that the impact of migration sharpened his sense of early memories. Whilst learning Dutch at his new school, he intuitively understood that grammar positioned him in a complex society: ‘I am; you are; he is… I soon realised that language is always about social relationships.
Benali recognises creative possibilities in passed-on memories too. He refers anecdotally to his parents chatting about their Berber village, at home in Rotterdam: ‘My parents definitely weren’t storytellers, but through gossip, through their fascination with personal relations, I always felt I knew the people in their Moroccan village well.’ It was exactly because communication in the 80s was limited, that his imagination came into play. His grandfather would travel 30 miles on horseback to find a phone booth in the next big city to call his father.
The imagination of the young eavesdropper sparked when Benali picked up snippets of conversations about rainfall and potato growth: ‘It is the absences in gossip, the gaps in communication that allow a writer to create interesting images of place.’
An attentive teacher at his primary school noticed Abdelkader’s talent for observation. ‘Mister Bart’ encouraged the boy to bring a notebook on his family’s travel to Morocco during the summer holidays. The notebook was bound to get lost on the journey, but this ‘memory gap’ eventually inspired De stem van mijn moeder (2009, My Mother’s Voice). Benali describes this novel about a Moroccan family in Rotterdam as a study of different responses to migration. The novel’s main character is one of a twin, a successful photographer – a nod to the importance of visuals to Benali.
Though ‘My Mother’s Voice’ roughly discusses the same themes of his first novel (a migrant family re-visits Morocco), there are clear differences. Less echoes of Rushdie’s magical-realism; more – often funny – contemporary sketches of intergenerational misunderstandings, prejudices about migrants in the Netherlands and mid-thirties anxiety. Many voices occur in the novel: in the end, it is up to the reader to figure out whose story she has actually heard.
Perhaps forced upon him since his early debut, Benali has gradually acquired a self-assured public persona and skilled social media presence. He is often asked to present ‘the Moroccan migrant view’ in Dutch media or to comment on multiculturalism. It seems natural that he has become more outspokenly political.
Frustrated with the harsh speech that has hijacked conversations about migration in his country, he says: ‘People who are younger than me, who lived in the Netherlands far shorter than I did, now tell me I should leave and go “home”… I remember when the Berlin Wall came down; the sense of hopeful excitement amongst teachers at my school stuck with me. The EU is now encouraging the building of walls everywhere.’ Not without irony he refers to Moroccans in Morocco echoing the current migration debate in Holland: ‘In North Africa they complain about migration from the South now: “These migrants, they will take our jobs; they will steal our money…” Migration, movement, curiosity about others: they’re not bad things at all.’
Benali’s use of the expression ‘language machine’ is apt given that his entire oeuvre seems to generate movement into creative and societal engagement. He has broken down a few walls too, with a contagious and optimistic view on connecting with others. The very literal movements of global migration and exile, of global tourism have a political and environmental impact that shapes all our individual lives. It is an uplifting reminder to hear that there is much creativity and humour to these movements and machines.
This post originally appeared on the UCL Events Blog. Travelling and Translation was the first in a series of events on Dutch language, art and literature at UCL's Centre for Low Countries Studies.