Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1381, (15 - 21 February 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1381, (15 - 21 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Maghreb books in Paris

The Maghreb des Livres Book Fair summoned book lovers interested in the Maghreb countries of the Arab world to the heart of the French capital this week, writes David Tresilian

Maghreb books in Paris
Maghreb books in Paris

The 19th-century Paris Town Hall was the venue for this year’s Maghreb des Livres Book Fair, the 24th since the event was established on a regular basis in 1994, with book lovers from across the French capital and perhaps beyond converging on the Town Hall’s splendid gilded function rooms for three days of book-buying, author talks and literary discussions.  

The fair, running from 2 to 4 February, has been extended to the Middle East this year and renamed the “Maghreb-Orient des Livres”. However, its original sponsor, the NGO Coup de Soleil, has continued to be its main organiser, joined this year by the IREMMO, the Institut de Recherche et d’Études Méditerranée Moyen-Orient. The fair’s purpose also remains much as it has ever been, namely “to advance the understanding of the Maghreb and its contemporary development through the richness and diversity of its written expressions”, as the mission statement puts it.

With this in mind, Paris bookstores specialising in the Maghreb and Middle East had been invited to present recent works on the region, most of them from French publishers but with a sprinkling of other materials as well. Some 140 French and Maghreb authors had been invited, among them academics, essayists and fiction-writers, and these included some major names such as academics Gilbert Achcar and Jean-Pierre Filiu, journalists Robert Solé and Charles Enderlin, and novelists Kamel Daoud, Bensalem Himmich and Waciny Laredj.

Panel discussions included sessions on the future of the Middle East, multiculturalism, life in the former Ottoman Empire, recent developments in Tunisia, and exile, migration and diaspora. French institutions such as the Museum of Immigration in Paris and the Museum of Education in Rouen had been invited to present their work, the latter on a recent exhibition on the history of education in Algeria. Like last year, there was a Café Maure, a “Moorish café”, in which visitors could enjoy traditional delicacies from Algeria. 

An innovation this year was the presence of extra-institutional activities representing civil-society organisations and youth groups. It is to be hoped that this can be extended in future years, perhaps especially since apart from the loan of the Town Hall premises the fair apparently does not benefit from any particular institutional support. This can be a source of strength as well as weakness, since it is the dedication and hard work of the NGOs concerned, presumably largely unremunerated, that give the event its social reach and dynamism even if the lack of business sponsorship can translate into a lack of financial means.

It would be welcome, too, if the work of young people, perhaps particularly young people of Arab descent, could be recognised more widely. The fair took steps in this direction this year with an event in which 14 young people from the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers presented work produced in writing workshops organised by the NGO Banlieue-Plus. Another event saw high-school students from St Ouen, also near Paris, present their work on a novel called L’Amas ardent (“The Fiery Cluster”) by the Tunisian writer Yamen Manai in the company of their class teacher and the author. 

Both of these events were interesting in different ways, and both gave the young people concerned a marvellous opportunity to speak to a wider audience about their work, even if one felt they were a little overawed by the institutional character of their surroundings. Manai filled in wonderfully well for the hesitations of the high-school students in talking about his novel, a finalist in the Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie, a French-language book prize. 

Events like these are among those most likely to stimulate an interest in the contemporary writing of the Maghreb among particularly new audiences that may not up to now have been exposed to it.



ANEL DISCUSSIONS: Elsewhere in the fair more-established commentators were talking about the Maghreb and the Middle East, including, on the day Al-Ahram Weekly visited, academics Gilbert Achcar and Jean-Francois Filiu, journalist Charles Enderlin and writer Hyam Yared, discussing the future of the Middle East. 

Achcar is a professor at the School of Oriental Studies in London and a well-known commentator on the region in French and English. His book Symptômes morbides: la rechute du soulèvement arabe (Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising), a translation of a work originally written in English, has recently appeared in French.

Filiu, a professor at the Institut des Etudes politiques in Paris, has similarly recently published Généraux, gangsters et jihadistes: histoire de la contre-révolution arabe (Generals, Gangsters and Jihadists: A History of the Arab Counter-Revolution). Both authors were on hand to discuss and sign copies of their books later in the day, and during the panel discussion they painted a generally sombre picture of prospects for progressive change in the Middle East. 

For Achcar, the region is suffering from “multiple instabilities” that cannot be steadied by political change alone, something which he said had been evident in the failure of successive governments in Tunisia. For Filiu, reprising the argument of his book, wherever the Middle East is heading, it is likely to be heading there very soon, since the present situation, notably in the Levant, “cannot hold”, he said.

Enderlin, a French-Israeli journalist who reported from Israel for over 30 years from the early 1970s to 2015, has recently published Au nom du Temple, Israël et l’irrésistible ascension du messianisme juif (In the Name of the Temple, Israel and the Irresistible Rise of Jewish Messianism), in which he examines the Israeli colonisation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Speaking about the situation today in the Occupied Territories during the panel discussion, he painted a bleak picture of an Israeli take-over that is making a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine impossible. 

Also on the day the Weekly visited the fair, a group of generally younger French researchers was tackling the theme of life in the former Ottoman Empire, generally when experienced from below. According to researchers Isabelle Grangaud, Nora Lafi, Marie-Carmen Smyrnelis and Isik Tamdogan, the former empire, finally expiring after years of decline after its defeat in World War I, could still intrigue today both because of its vast size and because of the diversity of populations and areas it contained.  

The Ottoman Empire was largely rural and agricultural, panel moderator Francois Georgeon explained, though it also contained many major cities and commercial centres. The urban centres of the empire provided the focus of the discussion that followed, with Isabelle Grangaud and Nora Lafi emphasising its mixed character, with many different religious, ethnic and other communities rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder in an admittedly sometimes vast, but in the cities also often very constricted, space.  

The interest of the Ottoman system, or systems, for many people today came from this mixed character, they explained, particularly when questions relating to diverse populations living together in common political units have returned to the agenda, often under the headings of cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism. 

Lafi, who seems to have carried out what may well have been heroic research in the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul, said that this system of coexistence could be better understood by patiently working through the “kilometres of legal documents” from former Ottoman urban centres such as Damascus and Baghdad that are now kept in these archives. Tamdogan said that when trying to understand how the different communities had lived together under Ottoman rule, it was helpful to remember that in traditional Ottoman law there had been no single category of citizen. Instead, each community would run its own affairs, resulting in multiple possible legal categories divided often by religion.

For Smyrnelis, while modern Western concepts such as “tolerance” and “cosmopolitanism” can be employed to analyse Ottoman society, particularly since it was characterised by such different forms of diversity, another way of seeing it would be to emphasise its “compartmentalised” character. The different communities typically lived in different districts, had different institutions, were subject to different legal systems, and even had (until the later 19th century) different citizenship status. Perhaps they only really rubbed together when they went to pay their taxes to the Ottoman government in Istanbul, she said.

Emerging from the depths of the Paris Town Hall where committee meetings, and on this occasion fair events, are held in basement rooms without windows, it could be a relief to return to the gilded 19th-century function rooms above, their floor-to-ceiling windows letting in a few last rays of wintry sunshine. Books had been piled up in impressive heaps on trestle-tables, and Achcar, Enderlin, Filiu and others were signing copies of their new books for lines of delighted readers.

Among other books making the running this year, and being signed by their authors, were the French psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama’s Le jihadisme des femmes (Women’s Jihad), new books by Algerian novelists Kamel Daoud and Waciny Laredj (Zabor ou les psaumes and La Maison andalouse, respectively), and prolific Franco-Egyptian author Robert Solé’s Ils ont fait l’Egypte moderne (The Men who Made Modern Egypt). 

Khaled Osman, perhaps best known for his translations into French of novels by Egyptian writers, including many by novelists Naguib Mahfouz and Gamal Al-Ghitany, was also on hand to sign copies of his own most recent novel entitled La Colombe et le moineau (The Dove and the Sparrow). 

Maghreb des Livres Book Fair, 2 to 4 February at the Hotel de Ville, Paris.

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