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by Bamber Gascoigne

Driss Chraïbi (1926-2007)


French-Moroccan novelist, considered to be the father of the modern Moroccan novel. Chraïbi's work drew heavily on his own life. Central theme in his novels was the clash between different cultures, the East and the West, Arab and French. Chraïbi's range of style changes from epic to comedy. He was one of the pioneers of Maghrebian writers to explore the oppression of women and children in an Islamic, patriarchal society. In Morocco, he was labelled a traitor after the publication of Le Passé simple (1954, The Simple Past), but at the time of his death, he was one of the best-loved authors of his native country. Chraïbi wrote also postcolonial detective novels featuring Inspector Ali. 

"En dépit de mon instruction occidentale, je continuais de vivre, d'agir et de juger par paraboles, à la manière de ces conteurs publics qui s'installent dans un coin de rue. . ." (from Le passé simple, 1954)

Driss Chraïbi was bon in El Jadida (formerly Mazagan, French Morocco), a town near Casablanca. His father was a wealthy tea merchant, who perceived Western education as a means to modern Morocco. Chraïbi attended Koranic school as a young boy. He felt himself miserable in the rigid religious and educational environment. When the family moved to Casablanca, Chraïbi continued his studies at the French Lycée, a school with 1000 pupils of whom only three were "Muslim Moroccans", as Chraïbi himself recalled. At age of nineteen he went to France planning study chemical engineering and neuropsychiatry. He also studied engineering at the ESPCI ParisTech in Paris. Just before receiving his doctorare, Chraïbi abandoned his studies because of the insurmountable prejudices against the "Norafs" (the North Africans) and his religion. However, in France he became a naturalized French citizen. Chraïbi always insisted that he was a "writer of French expression, period," not a Moroccan or Francophon writer. ('Driss Chraïbi & the Novel Morocco Had to Ban' by Adam Shatz,  NYR Daily, January 2, 2020) 

After turning his back to European higher education, Chraïbi worked in odd jobs and traveled throughout Europe and Israel, where he spent two years under a Jewish pseudonym. Eventually Chraïbi settled in France with his first wife, Catherine Birckel, and children, and devoted himself to literature and journalism. In 1954 Chraïbi began writing for the National Radio and Television Broadcasting System. For many years, Chraïbi's relationship with his father was strained.  When he died in 1957, Chraïbi did not attend his funeral.

Chaïbi taught North African literature at the University of Laval-Quebec in Canada for a year, had an affair with his student, but returned then to France in 1971. In 1978 Chraïbi married Sheena McCallion, a Scots woman. From his first marriage he had five children. Chraïbi's works have been translated into English, Arabic, Italian, German, and Russian. Chraïbi remained in France until his death. The French President François Mitterand thanked him for writing in French. ('Civilization and Otherness: The Case of Driss Chraibi' by Hamid Bahri, in Journal of Arts & Humanities, Vol 3, No 1, 2014, p. 68) Chraïbi died on April 2, 2007, in the village of Crest, where he had lived since the mid-1980s. His body was brought back to Morocco and buried in the Cimetière des Chouhada in Casablanca.

As a novelist Chraïbi made his debut with Le Passé simple (The Simple Past), which came out in 1954, two years before Morocco gained its independence. The book stirred much controversy because of the inflammable political situation in the North Africa. While French reviewers  praised the novel for its innovative style, Arab critics called Chraïbi a traitor.  He was threatened with death from within the Parti Démocrate de L'Indépendance (PDI). French conservatives saw that text revealed the reason for the preservation of the French Protectorate in Morocco.

The PDI's journal Démocratie, published an anonymous article, in which Chraïbi was accused of being an "assassin of Hope," ('Driss Chraïbi, assassin de l'espérance'). "This Judas of Moroccan thought never felt the need to talk about the values of his people. Passionate denigrator, he prefer to cling to the values of others, though they are not valid for us, insofar as we respect and love our own." (The Literary Qur'an: Narrative Ethics in the Maghreb by Hoda El Shakry, 2019)  Chraïbi became so disturbed, that he publicly offered a more PDI-friendly reading of the novel, but later regretted his action. He was not forgiven for his departure from his Islamic heritage. Until 1977, Le Passé simple was banned in the country. "Had there only been the Protectorate and colonialism, everuthing would have been simple," Chraïbi said in an interview in 1967. "Then my past, our past, would have been simple. No, Mr. Sartre, hell isn't others. It's also in ourselves." ('A Literature of Departure: The Cross-Cultural Writing of Driss Chraïbi' by Danielle Marx-Scouras, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1992)

Driss Ferdi, the protagonist-narrator Le Passé simple, revolts against the patriarchal traditions and culture of his background. Banished from home by his father, a wealthy tea imprter, Driss begins his wandering on the streets. Finally he returns to home only to find that his mother has allegedly committed suicide during his absence. The novel ends with Driss's departure for France. Like the author himself, sharing also the same first name, Driss is an outsider in his own country, oppressed by his family and the feudal, religious traditions. Of the protagonist Chraïbi said in the preface to L'âne (1956, The Jackass): "He is perhaps me. In any case his despair is mine." ('The Re Racination of Driss Chraïbi: A Hajj in Search of Mecca' by John C. Hawley, in The Marabout & The Muse: New Approaches to Islam in African Literature, edited by Ken Harrow, 1996, p. 66)  

Chraïbi's next novel, Les Boucs (1955, The Butts), was set among the Arab immigrants living in poverty in France. The narrator Yalann Waldik (whose name means in Arabic "may your father be cursed") is an aspiring Algerian writer, whose hopes to find understanding among his countrymen is hindered by their illiteracy. The book was ahead of its time – Chraïbi was the first North African writer to examine the issue of migrant workers, before the subject became an issue of widespread debate. Before writing the novel, Chraïbi lived for a time with a group of Maghrebine emigrants, who had found shelter in a lorry.

L'âne (1956) was a tragic story of a rural barber, Moussa, who finds his prophetic mission and death in changing Morocco. Succession ouverte (1962,  Heirs to the Past) continued the story of Ferdi Driss, who returns to Morocco for his father's funeral. Driss has spent sixteen years in France, but now re-establishes his relations with his mother and brothers. Gradually Driss realizes how old family values have given way to the ideas of the West. "Remember, Driss? Would any of us have dared to start dinner before he got back, whether it was after midnight or dawn? You remember, don't you?" Un ami viedra vous voir (1967) was set in the modern bourgeois Paris. La civilization, ma mère (1972, Mother Comes of Age) was about the self-realization of a housewife in Morocco shortly before and during World War II. The protagonist is a cloistered Arab mother, who becomes a symbol of Third World liberation. At the end she boards a boat for France with his son. This novel is written in a lighter tone that  Chraïbi's previous ones. Arab feminists have acknowledged Chraïbi 's sympathetic portraits of women with respect.

Between the years 1981 and 1986 Chraïbi published an epic Berber trilogy, in which the last two novels explored the Arad-Islamic conquest of Morocco and Andalusia. The first, Une enguête au pays (1981, Flutes of Death), introduced the humorous Inspector Ali and his superior, two policemen from the metropolis, who are on a detective mission in the Berber mountains. The poverty-stricken clan, the Ait Tafelman, rule their little barren territory; they are bearers of ancient wisdom but also dispossessed and backward. "The man was standing in the sun, hands clasped around a staff almost as tall as he. His chin rested in his hands. He was ageless – and, maybe mindless. Immobile. In front of him, a spit-shot away, there was a red mule, equally immobile, eyes wide open, tail hanging down like a piece of unbraided hemp, and two skeletal sheep trying to graze on hay as dry as plywood. Aside from this faint evocation of grass, there was nothing – naked stone which which squeezed in on the enclosure where the man and his beasts seemed petrified into eternity." The clash between village life and city bureaucracy is presented in a comical light. The policemen go on with their investigation with bureaucrsatic obedience without much belief i n public service. La Mère du Printemps (1982, Mother Spring) was a historical and mystical story of Azwan, the ancient tribal leader. The final novel, Naissance à l'aube (1986, Birth at Dawn) focuses on the modern descendant of Azwan, who is a day porter at the train station and a card shark.

With L'inspecteur Ali (1991, Inspector Ali) Chraïbi established the genre of the postcolonial detective novel. The author-protagonist, Brahim Orourke faces troubles with his new book and with his Scottish wife and two sons after returning to his home village. Orourke was another alter ego for Chraïbi, a vehicle for portraying modern life in a satirical way. Inspector Ali's adventures continued in L'inspecteur Ali á Trinity College (1996) and  L'inspecteur Ali et la C.I.A. (1998). In Une place au soleil (1993) Chraïbi played with the conventions of the detective novel; the book can be read as the novel Orourke was working on in  the first  installment of the series. In the story Inspector Ali reestablishes justice in Morocco.

From short historical novels about the North African Berbers, Chraïbi turned his attention to the year 610 and Mount Hira. L'homme du livre (1995, Muhammad: A Novel) was a poetic novel about a man named  Muhammad, who received in that year the first of his many  revelations and became the prophet of Islam. While embracing the values of Islam, Chraïbi made a distinction  between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism, which was not his spiritual home. "Are we witnessing the mellowing/softening of a no-longer-angry  man? Or is his new-found interest in and respect for the religion of his childhood the product of a much more complex process?" asked Shalom  Goldman in his review. ('Muhammad: A Novel' by Shalom Goldman, in Al-'Arabiyya, Vol. 32, 1999, p. 247) The work won Morocco's Grand Prix Atlas in 1996.  

For further reading: Ways of Seeking: The Arabic Novel and the Poetics of Investigation by Emily Drumsta (2024); De la diversité culturelle au dynamisme littéraire: voix marocaines francophones by Afaf Zaid (2020); 'Introduction' by Adam Shatz, in The Simple Past by Driss Chraïbi, translated from the French by Hugh A. Harter (2019); 'Civilization and Otherness: The Case of Driss Chraibi' by Hamid Bahria, in Journal of Arts and Humanities, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2014); The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel by Karen Taylor (2006); 'Theorizing the Role of the Intermediary in Postcolonial (Con)text: Driss Chraïbi's Une enquête au pays' by Anjali Prabhu, Studies in 20th Century Literature, Vol. 27: Iss. 1, Article 8 (2003); 'Driss Chraïbi' by Nicholas Harrison, in Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, edited by Derdek Jones (2001); 'Chraïbi, Driss,' in The Encyclopedia of World Literature, Vol. 1, edited by Steven R. Serafin (1999); The Ambiguous Compromise: Language, Literature and National Identity in Algeria and Morocco by Jacqueline Kaye and Abdelhamid Zoubir (1990); 'Driss Chraïbi' by Lynne Dumont Robers, in Postcolonial Africa Writers: A  Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited  by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima (1998); L'Oeuvre de Driss Chraïbi by L. Benchama (1994); Contestation et révolte dans l'œuvre de Driss Chraïbi by H. Kadra-Hadjadji (1986) - See also: Mohammed Dib

Selected works:

  • Le Passé simple, 1954
    - The Simple Past (translated by Hugh A. Harter, 1990)
  • Les Boucs, 1955
    - The Butts (translated by Hugh A. Harter, 1983)
  • L'âne, 1956 [The Jackass]
  • De tous les Horizons, 1958
  • La foule, 1961
  • Succession ouverte, 1962
    - Heirs to the Past (translated by Len Ortzen, 1972)
  • Un ami viendra vous voir, 1966
  • La civilisation, ma mère, 1972
    - Mother Comes of Age (translated by Hugh A. Harter, 1984)
  • Mort au Canada, 1974
  • Une enquête au pays, 1981
    - Flutes of Death (translated by Robin Roosevelt, 1985)
  • La Mère du Printemps, 1982
    - Mother Spring (translated by Hugh Harter, 1989)
  • Naissance à l'aube, 1986
    - Birth at Dawn (translated by Ann Woollcombe, 1990)
  • D'autres voix, 1986
  • L'inspecteur Ali, 1991
    - Inspector Ali (translated by Lara McGlashan, 1994)
  • Les aventures de l'âne Khal, 1992
  • L'homme du livre, 1992
    - Muhammad: A Novel (translated by Nadia Benabid, 2008)
  • Une place au soleil, 1993
  • L'inspecteur Ali à Trinity College, 1996
  • L'inspecteur Ali et la C.I.A., 1998
  • Vu, lu, entendu: mémoires, 1998 [Seen, Read, Heard, Memoirs]
  • Une Enquête au pays, 1999 (edited by Gareth Stanton)
  • Le monde à côté: récit, 2001 [The World Next Door]
  • L’homme qui venait du passé: roman, 2004 [The Man from the Past]
  • Une vie sans concessions, 2009 (edited by Abdeslam Kadiri)
  • The Simple Past, 2020 (New York Review Books Classics; translated by Hugh A. Harter, introduction by Adam Shatz)

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