Sunday,21 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Sunday,21 April, 2019
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Books from the Maghreb

Now in its 23rd year, the Maghreb des Livres is an essential port of call for book-lovers interested in North Africa

Maghreb des Livres
Maghreb des Livres

The Maghreb des Livres book fair, taking place annually for the last quarter of a century in Paris, is unlike other similar events in that it is not directed at the publishing industry. Though some publishers are present, this is an event that is staged above all for readers and those wanting to find out more about the Arab Maghreb countries of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and to gain an overview of current French publishing about them.

This year’s fair, hosted at the weekend in the 19th-century grandeur of the Paris City Hall, saw the ceremonial council chamber and various committee rooms being pressed into service for stands bearing this year’s crop of books on the Maghreb. A café mauresque occupied an antechamber, and somewhere at the bottom of a nearby lift shaft conference rooms presumably more used to thrashing out the details of the city budget had been set aside for panel discussions on recent books and meetings with Maghreb authors.

The event is organised by a French NGO, Coup de Soleil, and is supported financially by the French government. Its aim is to encourage greater public appreciation in France of the culture and history of the Maghreb countries and the Diaspora populations. Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco were all formerly colonised by France, though they had different positions within the colonial system. While Morocco and Tunisia were both French protectorates and did not experience settler colonialism on a major scale, until 1962 and in the wake of a bitter war of independence Algeria was considered to be part of France.

In each case, French largely replaced Arabic as the language of government and education during the colonial period, in Algeria almost entirely so. This meant that at independence in the 1950s and early 1960s the three Maghreb countries found themselves in some ways having greater links with France than they did with the countries of the east of the Arab world, not least because most members of the Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian intelligentsia and of the educated middle classes had studied in French schools and universities and may have had little knowledge of Arabic.

Anyone familiar with the Maghreb countries will know that linguistic divisions between the francophone and arabophone sections of their populations to some extent even today mirror social and educational ones. Maghreb writers writing in French may be as well known in France as they are in their native countries, if not more so, and they may find it easier to communicate with European audiences than with their arabophone compatriots. This has led to a fracturing of the reading public in the Maghreb that is also to an extent a fracturing of cultural horizons, with the primarily arabophone and francophone sections of the populations having perhaps different views of cultural direction and leadership.

It would be strange if such issues did not emerge early on in an event dedicated mostly to literature in the Maghreb, as well as to the humanities and social sciences. Wandering through the grand public rooms of the Paris City Hall and inspecting the piles of books laid out on the forest of trestle-tables that had been erected for the occasion, it was obvious that books on the Maghreb, as far as the Maghreb des Livres was concerned, meant books in French and books from primarily French publishers.

Algerian literature was guest of honour at this year’s event, and a good number of Algerian writers and books from Algerian publishers were in evidence, but all of these, with a few exceptions, were also in the French language.

Visitors to the fair who, like the Weekly on this occasion, may feel themselves to be on the edges of the French and Arabic cultural systems may have found themselves pondering the strong links that tie together the French and Moroccan and French and Tunisian cultural elites, with this situation being perhaps just as strong, but possibly more conflicted, in the case of France and Algeria. Partly this is simply a case of shared habits, the result of speaking the same language and still, to an extent, sharing substantially the same education.

But it is also a matter of sharing common intellectual agendas. A francophone writer from the Maghreb is likely to have at least half an eye, possibly more, on the French and European reading public, and success in Paris can easily translate into respect at home. This is unlikely to be the case for a Maghreb writer writing in Arabic, whose audience is likely to be different in composition and outlook.

The situation is complicated by the presence in the Maghreb of other languages, notably Berber and the various spoken Arabic dialects. Varieties of Berber, widely spoken particularly in Morocco and Algeria, have recently achieved recognition as national languages if not official ones in these countries. Were Berber to achieve wider recognition in the education system, there seems to be no reason why there should not also be a larger Maghreb literature in Berber as well as in French and Arabic.

Similarly, the spoken Arabic of the Maghreb countries, characterised by multiple dialects that on first hearing, and even later, can sound almost unrelated to the written language, has a vernacular energy about it that lends itself particularly well to oral forms – poetry in the vernacular, for example, as well as theatre, television and films.

Like in Egypt where the vernacular is also used for such purposes, it turns out that in the Maghreb the dialects have been used far less for narrative purposes, among them for writing novels, which in the Maghreb tend to be written in standard Arabic by arabophone writers as they are in Egypt. There have been attempts in recent years to achieve greater recognition of the dialects as literary languages in the Maghreb, though these have experienced similar problems to those found elsewhere, among them difficulties of transcription.

There have also been worries that a gesture meant to widen access to literary materials, since texts written in the dialect may be more accessible to those having little formal education, may in fact narrow it. Arabophone readers not familiar with the Algerian dialects could have difficulty understanding vernacular materials, whereas they would have no difficulty understanding them were they to be recast in standard Arabic.    

ALGERIAN LETTERS: This year’s Maghreb des Livres drew upon the expertise of the authors present to organise a series of panel discussions, interviews, and lectures on Algerian and North African letters.

There were panel discussions of the work of Malek Chebel and Fatima Mernissi, for example, both of whom died last year following distinguished careers as intellectuals and writers. Chebel, born in Philippeville, now Skikda, in Algeria in 1953, was a psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and life-long student of Islam. Mernissi, born in Fez in Morocco in 1940, became well-known for her work in sociology and feminist studies, notably with regard to the discourse on women in Islamic thought and religion.  

Chebel’s work has perhaps proven too essayistic in character to find a natural place in English or Arabic translation, though his bringing together of psychoanalysis, religion and the body have gained in interest in recent years. Characteristic works include Le corps en Islam (1984) (The Body in Islam), Psychanalyse des Mille et Une Nuits (1996) (Psychoanalysis of the Thousand and One Nights) and L’érotisme arabe (2014) (Arab Eroticism). Mernissi, on the other hand, became well-known internationally for her work on women in Arab and Muslim societies, much of which has been translated into English and Arabic.

 Part of the charm of the Maghreb des Livres is its slightly ad hoc character, and while there had been some attempt to meet the media agenda that can often overshadow such events this year, thankfully the organisers had resisted the temptation to tailor the programme to what is currently on the newspaper front pages.

As a result, while there were panel discussions on “the banlieue vote,” of interest because of the upcoming presidential elections in France in which the voting preferences of French citizens of North African and Sub-Saharan African background may prove as important as they did in the last elections in 2012 (the banlieue are the suburbs surrounding many large French cities), and the “physiognomy of jihadism,” there were also more unusual discussions that were probably of as great an interest to visitors.

Among these was a discussion of “Mostaganem, leading light of Algerian theatre” with Algerian authors Slimane Benaissa, Habib Tengour and Bouziane Benachour. For those not familiar with the geography of Algeria, Mostaganem, it was explained, is an Algerian port city 80 km west of Oran that particularly in the 1970s played an important role in the development of Algerian theatre. Benaissa and Tengour spoke interestingly of the choices facing those who wanted to develop an Algerian theatre in the years after independence, notably with regard to the choice of language.

While European theatre could provide important food for thought, notably the work of the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, it was important, they said, for Algerian theatre to be in Arabic. In some ways this was made easier by the Arabisation laws of the 1960s that aimed to replace the use of French in Algeria with Arabic, but it was still the case that audiences for theatre tended to be francophone, as did theatre actors.

While the single party of the time, the FLN (Front de libération nationale – the National Liberation Front that had led the fight against French colonialism in Algeria), was officially committed to cultural, as well as political, independence from France and was therefore willing to find funds to support a national theatre (at the same time heavily censoring it), it had little opinion about what form that theatre should take or the choice of language for it.

“Theatre in classical Arabic does not work” in Algeria even today, Benachour said, since audiences cannot follow it. So the task became to develop the vernacular as a literary language and to find a way of using it such that its advantages in terms of its ease of comprehension to arabophone audiences, its “natural theatricality” as the language of everyday life, and its rich resources of local resonance and memory were not outweighed by its disadvantages, chief among them, according to Benachour, its “folkloric,” “pre-modern” and “rural” aspects.

The question was how to find a way of writing modern drama in popular Arabic without using a language that was associated with the past, Benachour said. The Syrian poet Adonis “has found a way of writing in a modern way in classical Arabic by revolutionising the classical language. But how can we revolutionise the vernacular while at the same time retaining its popular value,” he asked.

As is often the case in discussions of literature in the Maghreb, the panel drifted towards questions of audience and language. Francophone writers in Algeria, the panel said, were always trying to find ways to tap into vernacular Arabic, seeing it as an expression of a popular authenticity that they felt they may have lost, whereas arabophone writers had “little but contempt for it,” seeing the vernacular as at worst a form of degraded slang and at best the local expression of a wider culture whose centre lay elsewhere.

There was so much that could not be said in classical Arabic, since once translated the vernacular lost its rich connotations, Benaissa said. Benachour said that of his 15 plays in Arabic, two he had written in the classical language, and the rest he did not see the interest in translating as doing so would cause them to lose their dramatic character. He wrote novels in French, he said, since these were for a different audience. Benaissa said he had not published his plays in vernacular Arabic in written form since it would be “too complicated” to try to transcribe them.

HISTORY IN COMIC STRIPS: This discussion was followed by another on “Algeria in comic strips,” in which the recent vogue for presenting even complicated and potentially abstract material like modern Algerian history in the shape of cartoon strips was discussed.

Visitors to France are sometimes surprised by the country’s thriving investment in such cartoons, which go far beyond such familiar materials as Asterix (Tintin of course is Belgian). This habit seems to have spread to Algeria and the other Maghreb countries, where there have been on-going attempts, echoed in France, to present the country’s history in comics.

Young Algerian cartoonist Racim Benyahia, visiting for the Maghreb des Livres from the Algerian city of Constantine, explained that his historical comic book Constantine 1836, which recounts little-known incidents from the 19th-century French conquest of Algeria in graphic form, was an experiment in bringing together digital drawing techniques with the orientalist iconography of the period in order to present the history of the conquest to new audiences.

For French cartoonist Jacques Ferrandez, himself of Franco-Algerian (Pied noir) background, the task of the cartoonist in presenting the colonial history of Algeria lay in finding alternatives to orientalist imagery while at the same time trying to present a complex history in visual form. This had become more possible to do since the 1980s, he said, as the bitter memories of the war had begun to be laid to rest, a point of view echoed by the distinguished historian Benjamin Stora, the author of various more conventional historical works on Algeria.

Historians, Stora said, had a duty to try to reach out to wider audiences, particularly where controversial and still-bitter issues like the French colonisation of Algeria were concerned, and this he had first done through his television programmes on Algerian history for French TV which had also made extensive use of visual materials. In some ways, he said, adapting this material for cartoon strips had been made easier since it already existed in visual form, giving the cartoonist rich resources in terms of storylines and dramatic situations.

Some 130 authors were present at his year’s Maghreb des Livres, a couple of dozen of them from Algeria. They were on hand at various points throughout the fair’s two-day programme for interviews and book-signings, as well as for appearances on panel discussions. In addition to Stora, speaking about his cartoon books and signing copies of his new memoir C’était hier en Algerie (Yesterday in Algeria), the well-known Algerian arabophone novelist Waciny Laredj was on hand to sign copies of his Nisa’ Casanova (Casanova’s Women), one of the few Arabic novels on display, as was Algerian journalist and novelist Kamel Daoud in the case of his new book Mes Indépendances.

Daoud’s novel Meursault, contre-enquête, a kind of post-colonial rewriting of French novelist Albert Camus’s celebrated 1957 book L’Etranger, attracted wide international interest when it was published three years ago and was swiftly translated into English and other languages (reviewed in the Weekly in July 2015). His new book is a selection of his journalism from Algerian newspapers, and it seems set to attract similar attention.

Maghreb des Livres, Hotel de ville de Paris, 18-19 February.

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