Arab writers’ use of foreign languages opens new horizons

Several factors contributed to the success of Maghrebi literature written in French, including the sizeable stock of works published.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Lebanese-French writer and academician Amin Maalouf speaks during a ceremony at the French Institute in Paris. (Reuters)
A voice from the East. Lebanese-French writer and academician Amin Maalouf speaks during a ceremony at the French Institute in Paris. (Reuters)

It is difficult to talk about one Arab literature because the differences far exceed commonalities, both at the level of the language used and themes broached by writers across the Arab world.

This differentiation among Arab writers becomes even more apparent when some of them turn to other languages as their medium of expression.

Lebanese writer Etel Adnan said her choice to write in English affords her a freedom not found in French, for example, in which the slightest linguistic innovation is deemed a sin, given the inflexibility that characterises French language usage.

That rigour, however, was not an obstacle for Adnan, who has published as many works in French as she has in English. Her latest work in French was “Revenir a Yourcenar” (“Going back to Yourcenar”), a novel published a year ago in Paris.

In Lebanese literature, the experience of Amin Maalouf is very different from Adnan’s. Maalouf began writing in French after a long experience of writing in Arabic. He served as editor-in-chief of the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar before moving to Paris, where he built a career as a great novelist.

Many of his works, such as “Leon l’Africain” (“Leo Africanus,” 1986) or “Les Desorientes” (“The Disoriented,” 2012), achieved international fame. In 2011, Maalouf was elected to the French Academy.

Maalouf, whom the French media prefer to call “Mr Orient,” remains faithful to his historical themes, with his interest in digging into the documentary aspects of his work, which requires extensive research.

For example, while working on his novel “Le Periple de Baldassare” (“Baldassare’s Odyssey,” 2002), which takes place in the 17th century, Maalouf consulted more than 200 references on trade between Genoa and Flanders in Belgium, on the Ottoman Empire during that period and on the Great Fire of London.

Adnan and Maalouf are two Lebanese voices that have received more attention at the levels of reading, circulation, criticism or media exposure. Because of them, other writers from the Arab world working in foreign languages have emerged from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian territories or other Mashreq countries.

There are writers who published their first work but disappeared inside a genre characterised by tough competition or those active in creative areas, such as poetic prose, that do not get much public attention.

This is the case of Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, who published one novel — “Beer in the Snooker Club” (1964). He is considered the first Egyptian writer to write a novel in English. The text chronicles a part of his troubled life. Ghali visited Israel in 1967 while a reporter for the Times in London.

In contrast to Middle East countries, printing and publishing infrastructure emerged rather late in the Maghreb but Maghrebi literature developed in a range of European languages, in addition to Arabic and local dialects, including Amazigh and Hassani.

Maghrebi literature written in French is a theatre of writing that formulates its own questions and approaches. It created its own space in the Maghreb, France and elsewhere. This is reflected by the fact that four Moroccan authors have won the Goncourt Prize, top prize in francophone literature. Morocco ranks second, after France, in terms of winners of the award.

Several factors contributed to the success of Maghrebi literature written in French, including the sizeable stock of works published.

The first Maghrebi texts written in French date to the 1930s. Abdelkader Chatt’s novel “Mosaiques ternies” (“Worn-out Mosaics”) first appeared in Paris in 1932, and Ahmed Sefrioui’s short story collection “Le chapelet d’ambre” (“Amber Rosary”) appeared in 1949.

The first texts in French could attempt to introduce the traditions and daily life in the Maghreb to French readers. They emulated styles and themes of colonial literature and were an extension of the context of the fascination of the colonisers with the colonies.

As decades went by, francophone Maghrebi literature broke away from the mould of reporting and describing to establish its own literary journey, raising its own interrogations and answering them in narratives rooted in shifting social contexts and that reflected an awareness of its own poetry.

While written in French, this literature remained true in its linguistic and identity roots. Thus, Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laabi was keen on publishing an Arabic sister edition of his francophone magazine Souffles. Both editions are typical examples of a Moroccan voice looking for a new horizon for new poetic and intellectual experiences.

Arab writers do not have to abandon writing in their native language and seek expression of their ideas and art in other languages. It is, however, a fact that the existence of Arab literature written in languages other than Arabic can only enrich this literature.

Arab authors writing in foreign languages take Arab literature to other places and other readers, which is essential to break self-imposed isolation that can kill this literature and its voices.