Arab world’s unjustified neglect of African literature

African culture is flourishing south of the Sahara but this intellectual and spiritual momentum is not reaching Maghreb or Eastern Arab countries.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Not many African works. A customer browses books at a bookshop in Rabat.						             (AFP)
Not many African works. A customer browses books at a bookshop in Rabat. (AFP)

Whether in poetry, fiction, literary criticism, intellectual or philosophical research, theatre or the plastic arts, African culture is flourishing south of the Sahara but this intellectual and spiritual momentum is not reaching Maghreb or Eastern Arab countries, even though Africa represents a historical depth for us.

Unfortunately, Arab writers’ unions are ignoring African writers and thinkers. There are no serious efforts to exchange visits by relevant delegations from both sides and in promoting African cultural developments in Arab countries. Various ministries of culture have turned their backs on African cultural affairs and the cultural attaches of Arab country embassies in African countries have done nothing worth mentioning to establish Arab-African cultural relations.

This reality in the Arab world contrasts sharply with the African reality in European countries. They, especially Britain and France, have dedicated radio stations that focus mainly on African cultural life and offer listeners in Europe samples of creative and intellectual achievements in the African continent. European publishing interests do not shy away from publishing African creations and promoting them and African literature is often included in educational curricula in European schools and universities.

There is no such openness on African culture in the Maghreb. It is impossible to find one publisher in North Africa or elsewhere in the Arab world that consistently and systematically has been concerned with publishing and distributing African literature and thought.

Not even Arab scholars and so-called critics know much about the foundations and components of African literature, with the exception, perhaps, of individual efforts of the late Egyptian scholar Ali Shalash and those of a few other academics, specifically in Egypt.

I was introduced to the treasures of African poetry and novels in Britain, not in Algeria. During my visits to Arab countries since then, I deliberately made the effort to thoroughly search their libraries and bookstores for samples of African poetry to no avail.

Arab countries are deprived of the rich intellectual debate that African critics and thinkers contribute to the liberation of the African mind from dependence on the former European colonial powers. There is no doubt that this debate is fertile and deep. African intellectuals call for writing in local African dialects and languages and for abandoning writing in the language of the former European colonisers.

There are also those who say that the language of the coloniser, be it Dutch, French or English, is a neutral tool of expression and that resorting to writing in local languages is not incompatible with African emancipation and African identity.

African novelist Chinua Achebe is a defender of this last thesis and other African writers, such as novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o, sharply disagree. Wa Thiong’o said liberating the African mind from colonialism is the first step towards severing African dependency on Europe.

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