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The Role of Orality in Hafid Bouazza’s Paravion

Le rôle de l’oralité dans le roman Paravion de Haffid Bouazza
Hennie van Coller
p. 141-149


Paravion, le roman de Haffid Bouazza, fut unanimement salué par la critique néerlandaise, mais son apparent manque de structure suscita beaucoup de critiques. Le titre, Paravion, se réfère à la mention inscrite sur les enveloppes des lettres envoyées par les travailleurs saisonniers aux Pays-Bas à leurs familles au Maroc. Le mot introductif, Hear Ecoutez !, ne se réfère pas seulement à la lecture publique de ces lettres aux familles illettrées sur la place du marché, mais renvoie (en anglais) effectivement au commencement traditionnel d’une lettre (Dear Cher ...). Ces deux traditions conflictuelles (la tradition orale sans prétention et la tradition épistolaire extrêmement sophistiquée) sont liées. Dans cet article, le roman est interprété comme un hybride de traditions littéraires arabes et occidentales et il y est affirmé que l’allusion à la tradition orale dément la critique formulée à l’encontre de ce roman, lui conférant son raffinement.

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1Hafid Bouazza was born in Morocco (in 1970), but is currently one of the most well-known Dutch authors. He made his debut in 1996 with an acclaimed collection of short-stories, De voeten van Abdullah (The feet of Abdullah), and thereafter published works in a variety of genres. In particular his essay, Een beer in bontjas (A Bear in a Varicoloured Coat), which he wrote on invitation for the Boekenweek on “the land of origin: writing between two cultures,” attracted much attention. Columns were published in various daily papers, also with connection to a fierce debate in the Netherlands on, amongst other matters, the particular issue of the integration-problematic of Muslims. In these columns Bouazza shows himself to be a polemic who is critical of aspects of Islam, especially the inherent neglect of women that, according to him, is present in the religion. Bouazza (2001) states plainly that claims alleging that the Koran makes no disparaging distinction between the genders are false; according to him God favours men. He further accuses the government of the Netherlands of failing to recognise the danger of Muslim extremists (qtd by Van Kaam, 2006: 52). A final breakthrough came in 2003 when his acclaimed novel, Paravion, received high accolades with its publication.

2According to the Dutch classification (which is controversial in certain circles), Bouazza belongs to the group “migrant writers”. Like the dichotomy allochtoon vs. autochtoon it is a term highlighting “otherness”, “marginality” and (an other) identity. Bouazza himself has resisted this classification and labelling and prefers to be known as an author writing in Dutch (Bouazza, 2001). Sometimes this marker “migrant writer” is given to non-Western authors (Kasprzycki, 1998: 169).

3The “otherness” of the so-called migrant writer is however not only limited to a different place of origin and a different first language. Because they are born (and often raised) in another culture, with roots strengthened by the parental home, the contours of their physical and cultural space are often strange (“other”) for the Dutch reader. They often refer to other, “esoteric” spaces (Moroccan bath houses, Turkish baths, Somali houses and Chinese and Iranian customs). Prominent and central within the reality represented in these works are the other religious systems in particular (such as Islam). Such a religious system often dominates the entire life of an individual and the society in which he functions.

4If such a religious system further (co-)determines the cultural system, the strangeness increases for the median Dutch reader. Very few Dutch readers are initiated into the modern Arabic culture or knowledgeable about classic Arabic culture, as Hafid Bouazza certainly is. Thematically, migrant literature (necessarily ?) differs from mainstream Dutch literature, which is sometimes already slighted because of its typical “closet-realism.” Many of the works of migrant literature, on the other hand, deal with political violence, torture, oppression and murder in the country of origin themes on the margins of the Dutch literary system.

5In migrant literature the emphasis is often on liminality, appropriation and rites of passage - all in relation to the adaptation of the migrant to another space and cultural system. Even when the source culture is a dominant culture in other areas and it can claim a long cultural tradition (as is the case with, for example, the Arabic and Chinese traditions), adaptation to the target culture is vital. It is often accompanied by a feeling of loss of identity and power, but also simply of familiarity. In the small Dutch language area even a thorough knowledge of Arabic culture is not necessarily important for social mobility and prestige and in particular for economic benefits. In almost every book by a migrant writer (compare even the well-known novel, The Kite-Runner), this theme of loss of power and status is dominant. Lamprecht quotes Buikema who defines migrant literature as contemporary texts where the poetics of place/replacement figures centrally in the narrative (Lamprecht, 2008: 102).

6In any good literary work, motifs and themes (thus story) are not separate from the structured story. In many texts of migrant writers the combination of these processes act in an alienating capacity on the reader whose horizon of expectation a la Jauss (1970) has been formed by reading texts mostly of a specific type. All readers within a post-modern world— where boundaries dissolve, disappear or shift - have to constantly open themselves up for new experiences, also of a literary nature. It is however obvious that even experienced critics fail to recognise codes when they belong to another cultural or literary system. Research in semiotic systems such as advertising has shown the same tendency: consumers recognise references much easier when they refer to their own, familiar cultural system because the underlying codification is familiar (Wiles, Wiles and Tjernlund, 1996, Jhally, 1987, and Ennaji, 1999). Often the term ’globalisation’ is more economic than cultural in nature.

7Lastly, the otherness of this group of migrant writers is most vividly shown in their use of language. Often words and/or concepts from their own culture (the source culture) are used, sometimes even without translation as with Bouazza (“wadi’s”, “harmal” on page 21 of Paravion). But even more striking is their use of the target language. At times they are accused of not mastering it properly (Pam, 2003, Van den Bergh, 2003, Vissers, 2003). Contrastingly, at other times they are praised for their novel and creative use of the target language - a praise uttered almost every year at award ceremonies so far removed as the Booker Prize and the Acco Literary Award (Janssen 2003; Jongstra, 2003; ’t Hart, 2003). Hermans (2006: 207) states unequivocally that the hybrid Dutch of Boudou and the neologisms of Bouazza and Stitou result in a new, fresh sound to Dutch. Orality is further a characteristic of migrant literature; the ability to tell a good story well (Buikema, 2005).

8This conflicting reception, specifically with regard to language use, is also evident in the reception of Par avion. Bouazza is known as a writer who uses a correct but slightly archaic and esoteric Dutch, which often seems to fall strange on the ears of many reviewers. A possible explanation is that these migrant writers often see their medium, namely Dutch (or English), as objectifying, especially where the standard language is strange. This medium and every nuance of it are then constantly discovered. No wonder that the dictionary as lexical archive is such an important resource for these writers. Bouazza mentions in this regard that he nearly became intoxicated when he discovered the WNT (Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal). He especially has an appreciation of Middle Dutch because of the combination of simplicity and exactness (Bouazza, 2003: 100).

Paravion: reception and interpretation

9Paravion is a story in the form of a letter about three generations of Moroccan men with the same name, Baba-Baloek. It is distinctly structured in a more balanced way than the previous novel, Salomon, and told melodically (Peters, 2003). Bouazza even says (see Peters, 2003) that he selected the medieval Dutch name, “Moorland”, for Morocco to indicate that it is a fairytale and not a realistic narration. This novel, Bouazza continues, belongs to the genre of the shepherd’s novel, “an artificial literary genre” from the classic era; a work therefore with fauns and nymphs. If one sought to categorise this as a literary type, it would resort under magic-realism. What stands central in this novel for Bouazza (Peters, 2003), is the impossibility of reconciling two worlds: Morocco and the Netherlands. In this oppositional tension the woman is the only possible reconciliation for him, more tolerating and adaptable than the reserved men.

10The title Paravion stems from letters written from the fathers - who initially work as migrant labourers in the Netherlands - to their family back home. For the illiterate “par avion” (by air) refers to a mythical land with paradise-like traits far over the sea, where the men travel with airplanes (or within the mythical discourse, flying carpets). Naturally this false, idyllic image is created by fathers who wish to create the impression of happiness and progress in order to better a bruised ego.

11“Because sensuality is linked with language and therefore writing itself in Bouazza, eroticism is never without obligation: even sexuality is a depiction of the imagination. When Bouazza propagates bodily pleasure, he therefore simultaneously defends the spirit of the artist” (Fortuin, 2003). According to Schut (2003), Paravion is a novel that brings racism, discrimination and misogyny in relation to one another. Schut notes that particularly important is Bouazza’s exegetic comment with the use of the swallow that as it were becomes the spirit of the wife of the first Baba Baloek, who dies while giving birth to a son. As deceased she finds herself simultaneously in heaven and hell. She penetrates the thoughts of others and so effects change: her son comes into contact with the erotic, the equal pleasure between man and woman, and the young women from the Moroccan town become possessed by her wrath, which is aimed at men who oppress them (Schut, 2003).

12Bouazza is primarily concerned with freedom: freedom from religious and political oppression, freedom from the stern logic of reason. From this perspective this novel is an attack on all inhibiting systems and concepts. In the first place Islam is the target because, according to Bouazza, it subordinates women. But also the sober Dutch attitude where there is no room for imagination and the characteristics thereof, like alogic and the dislocation of boundaries of time and space; in fact a mythical apprehension is targeted. Synthesis between these opposites is certainly difficult, but can possibly be done through the woman who is seen by Bouazza as pragmatic and in her Dantean manifestation, also godlike. Through women, he believes, cultures can be brought closer together and traditional roles will fade.

13Reviewers had problems with the structure of Paravion and some accuse the novel of being disorderly (for instance, De Ridder, 2004). The question is whether these problems cannot be directly related to another writing tradition. In Paravion it is clear that Bouazza explicitly and implicitly foregrounds the replacement of boundaries. This is most noticeable in that the Siamese twins are white and black and in the portrayal of the growing erotic relationship between Baba Baloek and Mamoera where hackneyed roles dissolve and then disappear, where the woman becomes more active while the man submits to the desires and requests of his wife.

14The most important method of integration (but also that which critics seldom refer to) is the use of the shepherd’s novel and the oral tradition. Here Bouazza attempts to show that there are few major differences between Arabic literature and (classical) Western literature. A letter is in fact nothing but a written form of communication and resorts therefore closely with the oral address or account. The traditional address “Dear Reader” is related to “listener”, and the “Hear” with which the narrative of Paravion begins, is in fact an introduction to both the letter and a public narration (see also Botha, 1982). In Paravion the letters from the Netherlands (the mythical land, “paravion”) are indeed read to women and children on the market plain. Thus a highly sophisticated narrative form from the classical period (the letter) merges with a typical oral narrative structure, familiar in the Arabic story culture and Zulu narratology (see, for instance, Die ding in die vuur by Riana Scheepers).

15As stated earlier, the most important motifs of this novel concern migration, which encapsulate the other motifs. Moroccans come from a culture where women are oppressed and where it is natural for brothers to harass sisters and discipline them. Men are passive, but consider themselves superior to women and the West. Partially as a result of their culture that denies the potential of women, they live in poverty and backwardness, which forces them to seek jobs as inferiors with the hated infidels. There in the Netherlands women are emancipated and seen as unchaste. The whole public nature of sexuality is scorned by Moroccans. Bouazza however shows that Moroccan women have turned their backs on the alleged chastity-ideal and in the absence of men they can explore their desires and decorate themselves openly.

16Perhaps the encapsulating motif is rather the result of the destruction of accepted customs, rituals and beliefs by the modern world, but which also resulted in migration. Modernity brings a desire for prosperity which is brought to the fore in the novel in the desire of the men for modern forms of transport and therefore necessitates migration of people to places where a larger income can be earned. Simultaneously modernity destroys imagination and the realm of stories and myths. In this is perhaps the salvation and reconciliation. Stories, the imagination and the dream form a corrective for hard reality.

17In his novel (and in interviews), Bouazza refers to the bucolic poetry of the Greek writer Theocritus (born circa. 315 AD at Syracuse). Various reviewers, and Bouazza himself, refer to the importance of Arabic oral literature as a frame of reference in Paravion. Within this tradition A Thousand and One Nights is a highlight. Although the traditions informing the novel therefore seem far removed from each other, they are thematically linked.

18Within the Hellenistic age in which Theocritus wrote, large cosmopolitan cities emerged and were flooded by immigrants. The result was a melting pot of races, cultures and religious perceptions that challenged the established social and religious hierarchies and therefore threatened the status quo; a situation recalling modern Europe of the last few decades in particular. Integration, appropriation and xenophobia are key words in this era. Particularly, Theocritus studies the situation in and around these cities, focuses on the lives of characters that often experience alienation and estrangement like typical modern characters (Fokkema and Ibsch, 1987). Modernism was (like now once again) the time of migration and Harry Levin (1966) views migration indeed as one of the distinguishing features or powers of modernism.

19In the works of Theocritus, he distinguishes (Lamprechts, 2008) the social changes of his age, amongst others the demolition of the patriarchal structure, the (sexual) emancipation of women; characteristics that Bouazza would of course incorporate. But Theocritus highlights the oral tradition in his work where stories and myths are retold as a form of history, but also as “identity memory.” What he therefore argues, is the adaptation of a new identity, but with a conservation of distinctive histories - perhaps the central theme of Par avion. The characteristics of the bucolic (shepherds-)tradition are amongst others the fragmented, phantasmagorical nature of it with a strong nostalgic undercurrent.

20A Thousand and One Nights is a collection of stories told and retold from one generation to the next. Evidently it is structurally connected with the oral tradition, but furthermore emphasizes that the telling of stories is a survival strategy - even within precarious circumstances. In other words literature can help overcome the destruction of war, deprivations and damaging fire - the amulet against the fire. This is one of the central themes in particularly the later work of André P. Brink such as The Other Side of Silence and Dark Moon. It is further striking that Brink often refers to A Thousand and One Nights as archetypical survival narrative and to the role of Shéhérazade. Bouazza (2001) himself claims that A Thousand and One Nights cannot be typified as a book about flying carpets: “It is the world. A Universe. The mirror of Salomon where the world is reflected. An example of a triumph of the human imagination.”

21Shéhérazade, in A Thousand and One Nights, postpones her death for an entire 1001 nights by telling stories to the Sultan, Shahriyar, whose wife’s adultery had embittered him as he now avenges himself on the female gender. During the narration, which takes two years and seventy-one days, she gives the Sultan three sons. Through her stories she ultimately saves herself and the female gender (Franklyn, 1957: 8 as quoted by Lamprechts, 2008: 38). Lamprechts provides many examples of structural-technical and thematic correlations between Bouazza’s novel and the two source texts, namely the work of Theocritus and A Thousand and One Nights.

22Paravion is therefore, in contrast to what most reviewers claim, structurally a close-knit work. But it only comes to light when the relevant frame of reference and intertextual references (especially regarding the oral tradition) are traced. Therefore this novel as written text ironically proves that the oral tradition is not simply unsophisticated, but exhibits a complex structure.

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Hennie van Coller, « The Role of Orality in Hafid Bouazza’s Paravion », Journal des africanistes, 80-1/2 | 2010, 141-149.

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Hennie van Coller, « The Role of Orality in Hafid Bouazza’s Paravion », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 80-1/2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 25 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Hennie van Coller

Professeur responsable du département d’afrikaans, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa (

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