III: Reception and Process Studies

Translating the Neighbour: Contemporary Maghrebi Literature in Spain

Monica Rius-Pinies

University of Barcelona, Spain

Language and Literature, a Dangerous Liaison (in Postcolonial Countries)

Nineteenth-century nationalism based its ideology on concrete pillars: the people of a nation should share the same history, territory, culture, religion and language. As seen from Fichte’s (1808/1922:223-224) Addresses to the German Nation, language occupied a prominent place in this system:

To begin with and before all things: the first, original, and truly natural boundaries of States are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused, in the beginning at any rate, and violently disturbing the even progress of its culture.

‘National’ literature, therefore, was the expression of the voice of a people who spoke in a single language. This identification between literature, language and nation was consolidated in the popular imagination, as well as in academic institutions. For example, distinctions between ‘French’ and ‘francophone’ literature (a term now in decline) mean that authors such as Albert Camus, Assia Djebar, Boualem Sansal and Rachid Boudjedra are not categorised together even though they were all born in Algeria and wrote/write in French. They have been studied in relation to categories beyond their birthplace and language of writing because, according to Elleke Boehmer (2005:133):

Colonized and Creole artists may have been included in metropolitan culture as migrants, yet they were rarely accepted as full participants in that culture. Far from bringing disruption, the foreign and the ‘primitive’ were enlisted by Western tradition as instruments of its own internal renewal.

Nevertheless, the impossibility of linking all literature written in a given language with a single national identity has opened up new perspectives of analysis: nowadays, one can study not only ‘English literature’, but also ‘literature in English’ and even ‘Arabic literature in English’ (see Gana 2015).

The choice of language is conditioned by political circumstances unrelated to the national affiliation of individuals (see, for example, Lefevere 1992). During the colonial period, the indigenous Maghreb population could not write in Arabic because they lacked the proper training, leading them to write in the language of the coloniser (usually French or English). Perhaps one of the most insightful statements in this regard is Malek Haddad’s (1927—1978) claim that Algerian writers wrote “the French” and not “in French” (Martinez Martin 2014:23). Similarly, writers such as Tahar Ben Jelloun (b. 1944), Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) and Amin Maalouf (b. 1949) are also widely recognised as part of postcolonial literature.

In postcolonial times—or, following Ella Shohat (1992), in postindependence times—the situation did not really change, and Arabic is still not the only language of expression for many Maghreb authors. While there is no single cause for this, education in French high schools, British colleges or American universities may influence the language of expression. Fouad Laroui (b. 1958) expresses the nonsense of living in a context of linguistic “handicaps”. The protagonist of his novel Méfiez-vous des parachutistes, a Moroccan who, despite living in Morocco, speaks and understands only French, experiences odd situations such as not being able to communicate with his own mother, who only speaks (and understands) dialectal Arabic (Laroui 1999:87-88): “Je n’ai pas de langue maternelle ... Je n’ai que des secondes langues” [I have no mother tongue ... I have only second languages] (my translation). Apart from the irony, Laroui shows the complexity of a situation poorly managed by policy-makers by tasking readers with deciphering a text that requires a rudimentary knowledge of Darija (Moroccan Arabic). Laroui’s (2010) essay Le drame linguistique marocain (The Moroccan linguistic drama) further explores the fragmented linguistic situation.

Exile and the diaspora are also important factors. Arabic literature has long included the diaspora, and the multilingualism associated with it, as a fundamental element. For example, Abdallah Taia (b. 1973) moved to France after receiving homophobic threats in Morocco. Although France did not turn out to be as welcoming as he had expected, he decided to stay and to write in French. Taia, who does not come from the Moroccan

Translating the Neighbour 197 economic elite, also introduces the nuance of class, breaking a supposed linguistic dichotomy of a lower-class Arabic-speaking and an upper-class French-speaking Morocco (Lamlili 2015).

One of the most important literary movements of the early twentieth century was undoubtedly the mahjar, the poetry of emigration (to the Americas). Writers such as Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), Mikha’il Nu‘ayma (1889-1988) and Amin al-Rihani (1876-1940) laid the foundations of what would become contemporary Arabic literature by writing in English and Arabic from the United States. Other established authors writing from exile (Paris and London) include Zakaria Tamer (b. 1931), Adonis (b. 1930) and Hoda Barakat (b. 1952). The old metropoles are also significant cultural centres with long traditions. Paris is home to the headquarters of the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) and London has long held the title of pan-Arab media capital. Newspapers such as Asharq al-Awsat, al-Arab, al-Quds al-Arabi and al-Hayat, literary magazines such as al-Naqid and Banipal, publishing houses such as Saqi Books and foundations such as Al-Furqan are essential to understanding contemporary Arab-Islamic cultural life.

Writing in more than one language is not unusual, and change of language is often related to ideology. For example, Rachid Boudjedra first wrote in French and later in Arabic to demonstrate his distance from the colonial empire. Mohamed Moulessehoul changed identity, signing with a female name, Yasmina Khadra, when he wrote in French. However, in a somewhat provocative statement, Moulessehoul (in Douin 2001) claimed that this was almost coincidental: “Je n’ai pas choisi. Je voulais écrire. En russe, en chinois, en arabe. Mais écrire! Au départ, ¡’écrivais en arabe. Mon prof d’arabe m’a bafoué, alors que mon prof de français m’a encouragé” [I didn’t choose. I wanted to write. In Russian, Chinese, Arabic. But to write! Initially, I wrote in Arabic. My Arabic teacher scorned me, while my French teacher encouraged me] (my translation).

However, the distance can lead to thematic and linguistic changes. Hanan al-Shaykh (b. 1945), who describes her situation as one of diaspora rather than exile, explores issues relating to Arabs living in London in her novels Only in London (Al-Shaykh 2001) and The occasional virgin (Al-Shaykh 2018). In an interview with Christiane Schlote (2003:n.p.), she states:

I started tampering and playing with the question of place. How it is influencing people. I don’t want to call it an exile. It is a diaspora because I chose to be away from Lebanon ... I noticed that all the years I have been living in London, subconsciously, I have been thinking of the city and how it has received and is still receiving immigrants. Whether they come because of poverty and economic reasons or because of political reasons. They are like a pot full of ingredients, full of reasons. Mainly, they either try to change theirlives or continue in this country. But, inevitably, they really change, no matter how they are holding on to their traditions. They either become fanatics more here or more liberated.

The change of scene from Beirut to London is relevant, since in Al-Shaykh’s literature, space is fundamental and cities play the role of real characters. Furthermore, the diaspora has an impact on translation, as diasporic authors are generally better known, and therefore more often translated into European languages, than those living in Arab countries.

 
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