Jamal-Eddine Bencheikh: From the Fou d'Elsa to the Thousand and One Nights
By Amina Rachid
"Arabic is the language of my blood and French that of my desire," wrote Jamal-Eddine Bencheikh in an article that appeared in Le Monde in 1990. As an assistant and then a lecturer at the University of Algiers, where he taught mediaeval Arabic literature and set up the Comparative Literature department, Louis Aragon's poem le Fou d'Elsa was his first passion. He taught this text to his students and made it the subject of one of his first articles, which appeared in Les cahiers algériens de littérature comparée, a journal that he founded and edited between 1965 and 1968. Bencheikh said that he had discovered the French values of fraternity and equality from Aragon, among other French writers, with whom he had spent a good deal of time in 1965. He did not wait for either Jean-Marie Le Pen or Charles Pasqua before assimilating them.
Like other North Africans, Bencheikh was trained not bilingually in French and Arabic, but trilingually in French, colloquial Arabic and standard Arabic, something that is notably illustrated by the Moroccan writer Abdel-Kebir al-Khatibi in his La Mémoire tatouée (Tatooed Memory). Colloquial Arabic was the language of Bencheikh's mother, who only spoke Arabic and whose early death was a great deprivation to him: throughout his life Bencheikh heard this language murmuring in his ears in suffering, a language that he called "the idiom of laughter or anger, of tenderness or suffering, of tales or of songs."
However, the colloquial language was opposed to the oratorical rhythms of the standard Arabic of the Meccan suras that his father used to recite, and who knew both French and classical Arabic perfectly. This contradiction seems to have marked the young Bencheikh, as well as the adult who was to become so enamoured of the Thousand and One Nights. With the beginning of his school years, it was the discovery of French that changed Bencheikh's life: "between the verses of prayer and the song of life there was now to be found in me the presence of the Other, both familiar and out of the ordinary, and [bringing with it] another language and another writing, other images and other sounds." A source of richness, this plurality marked the beginnings of Bencheikh's interest in literature, which for him constituted at once an entry into solitude and a freeing of the imagination.
During his career, Bencheikh worked to perfect his Arabic by mastering Arabic prosody and syntax, which were the subjects of his teaching at the University of Paris IV and of his essential book, Poétique arabe (Arab Poetics), which appeared in 1975. The product of intensive work and of deep reflection on the connections between language and culture, this book aimed to unravel the meaning and the theory of an order, which, in its author's view, had dominated Arab sensibilities until the twentieth century: "Arabic poetry has always wanted to be the repository of a culture and a history, a monument set up to the glory of a community and the field of exercise for a collective consciousness."
This book was a scientific and rational work that recognised and accepted the constraints of a dominant culture and the rules of established thought. However, a different internal itinerary was working its way out within Bencheikh, and this led him to his passion for the Thousand and One Nights and to his translation of it.
A text that has been endlessly read and re- read, and one to be found on the bedside tables of both Proust and Borges, this book was a revelation for Bencheikh, since it signaled the revelation of another meaning to Arab culture and perhaps a truer one. Before the publication, in 1991, of the first edition of Bencheikh's joint translation of the Thousand and One Nights, which he completed with André Miquel, Bencheikh published various critical studies of the text in which he brought out what for him was essential to it: namely, its subversive character and its way of getting around the law. Thus, in his book Les Mille et une nuits, ou la parole prisonnière (The Thousand and One Nights, or Imprisoned Speech), which appeared in 1988, after having analysed the various mechanisms employed in the work Bencheikh concluded that "this anonymous work....preserves the echo of a speech that has become a prisoner, a speech that is buried still deeper than desire and that is even more subversive than love. At the centre of civilisation appears this strange memory of another age." In another work, this time produced in collaboration with Claude Brémond and André Miquel, entitled Les Mille et un contes de la nuit (The Thousand and One Tales of the Night) and appearing in 1991, Bencheikh analysed another aspect of the text: the connection between love and death.
Here, what for Bencheikh was the strength of women appeared (was he remembering the celebrated poem by Aragon, La femme est l'avenir de l'homme ?), which represented a different idea of femininity, in other words, one of the woman who defies the man as subject and treats him instead as an object. Woman here is the one who wishes to live the absolute of love: this is not submissive Eve, created from Adam's rib, but rather Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who is described elsewhere: "before Eve there was Lilith, the powerful woman, the essential woman, the first wife of Adam, and it is highly significant that one only speaks about Eve, the socialised woman. Lilith is the wild, whole woman; in a word, she is the feminine- woman ( la femme-féminité )."
Does this explain why Bencheikh embarked on another translation of the Thousand and One Nights, adding to the list of those that already exist and which are often of remarkably high quality?
Apparently, the two translators wanted to disconnect the work from its orientalist aura in order to promote it to the ranks of the great works of humanity. It was from this idea that the notion of an edition in the Pléiade collection published by Gallimard took shape, and this edition appeared earlier this year. It was also from this idea that Bencheikh explained the selection of the texts translated, the techniques used for the translation and the choice of the level of language employed. Thus, the tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad were eliminated from the text, since these had become, according to Bencheikh in his preface to the 1991 edition, "the overly familiar representations of a fictitious Orient, peopled by flying carpets and magical lamps."
For these tales the translators substituted "admirable novels of love that transport us to Baghdad, Damascus or Cairo." They also consulted different editions and manuscripts of the text, completing certain tales and working on the innumerable poems that punctuate the text (some 1,250 of them), in order to restore the organic links of these with the surrounding narratives, on the one hand, and ensure that French readers would find them pleasurable reading on the other. Finally, it was a matter of refuting the widespread idea that many of the stories belonged to popular literature by restoring the intellectual techniques used in many of them, the tales presenting "poems of great inspiration, meetings where literary or theological debates take place, the fact that many tales take place in the milieu of the Caliph's court in Baghdad or Damascus, and references to the rich merchant milieu of Cairo or to the Bedouin of the Hijaz."
It is a cause for dismay that Bencheikh should have been taken from us in the year in which his translation of the Thousand and One Nights appeared in the Pléiade, a project that was dearer to him than anything. His students will miss his rigour and his occasional severity, and his friends will miss his often caustic sense of humour and the warmth of his friendship.
* The writer is professor of French and Comparative Literature at Cairo University and a life-long friend of Bencheikh. Obituary was translated from French by David Tresilian.