James Kirkup reviews

Arab authors published in French

All the perfumes of Arabia

The recent season of Moroccan art and literature in France benefited Arab culture as a whole. There was a particularly brilliant display of new and established Arab writers, with novels, short stories and poetry published by various French and native firms.

In particular, French publishers are to be congratulated on their adventurous editing of Arab poets and prose writers, either in superb translations from Arabic or in works composed originally in French, all of very high literary standard and quality of production.

Among them are several women whose work reveals aspects of Arab feeling and culture in a new and liberated manner. One of the best is the well-known Tunisian author Colette Fellous, whose charming autobiographical work, Le Petit Casino, has appeared from Gallimard. As in the writings of many Arabs, the house and its guardian angel, the mother, form essential elements in the basic themes of childhood, adolescence and the inevitable, heart-rending departure from home, usually to foreign lands.

Such motifs appear in all Fellous’ writing, from her first book, set in Italy, Roma (1982), to FrËres et Soeurs and Rosa Gallica, where, in superbly sensuous prose reminiscent of her namesake the great Colette, she describes early joys and sorrows, the dramas of youthful longings for a more open society, a more international culture; the death of a beloved brother, acute portraits of friends and local character, and the tragedy of separation from an over-sensitive musical mother; first steps abroad, in Italy, then in Paris, as a student of dance and literature, with devout attendance at the seminars of Roland Barthes and the beginnings of a brief stage career as dancer and actress.

These activities led her to create unique programmes for France Culture radio, beginning with a memorable documentary on the “whirling dervishes”. She is at present producer of a popular radio series, Le Bon Plaisir, in which she covers in a fresh, highly personal way themes from Morocco to Israel, from Italy to Tunisia, all fragrant with deep nostalgia for her childhood and youth. Something of the tremulous beauty of her daily world can be found in more permanent form in Colette Fellous’ books. Here is a typical extract from Le Petit Casino:
My house is a book. It is also a painting. The placing of a window, a table, of a bouquet of flowers. I want it all. Let no one change this composition re-invented day after day and that is metamorphosed from season to season. A new box, a teapot, a lamp, a statuette, a candlestick, a book, knives, a kilim rug, a picture postcard of Saint Augustine’s study . . .

This sumptuous poetic feeling, emanating from quite ordinary objects, possesses the luxurious simplicity of Matisse. And that great Arab theme, the house, reaches in this book profoundly loving, personal heights of shimmering expression.

The house is one of the basic images of a very fine novel by another Tunisian, Habib Selmi, born in 1951 in the beautiful ancient city of Kairouan, and who also lives in Paris. Actes Sud has published his very remarkable work Le Mont-des-ChËvres in an excellent translation by Yasmine Khlat. This brief, stark and finally terrifying tale also begins at home, on the eve of a son’s first departure for an obscure teaching post in a remote country school – a favourite theme in modern French literature also. It is a departure made with his father’s prayers and blessings and a mother’s joyful pride in her son’s first appointment, mingled with their sadness at the prospect of a long parting.

The journey begins, like so many African journeys, in a dilapidated old bus that takes four hours to reach Al-’Ala, from where the young man takes a long ride on mule back, accompanied by a mysterious older man who is to play an important part in the young man’s new life. As they proceed along desert tracks under a broiling sun, the youth begins to feel the first vague apprehensions about his silent companion. They make a brief halt at a solitary carob tree, where the man tells him seven men, including his own grandfather, had been murdered “by orders of the pasha” for taking part in an uprising against taxes. The young man begins to feel not just fear, but also an indefinable hatred for “this man of whom I know nothing except that he is the grandson of a revolutionary who had his throat cut in this desolate spot”. Thus the whole atmosphere of brooding horror and senseless violence is perfectly evoked in this first chapter, written like all the others in a spare, plain, factual yet strangely haunting style, with a secret poetic undercurrent that once or twice reminds us of Camus at his best.

We remember the author’s epigraph from PessÛa’s Book of Intranquillity: “We all live anonymously and apart from one another; in disguise, we suffer yet remain unknown . . .”

They finally arrive at Jabal al-’Anz (Hill of Goats) a forlorn, dusty desert village. The school is a single room. The youth passes the first night in the house of his uncommunicative guide, whose name is IsmaÔl. The house is surprisingly well-kept, with a large shelf of books: history, literature, Muslim law and Qur’anic exegesis.

Next morning, they return to the school, where IsmaÔl shows the young man his living quarters, a small room behind the class. IsmaÔl tells him: “If you need anything, come and see me. I’m representing the State here at Jabal al-’Anz.”

It is the beginning of a very strange sort of love-hate relationship between the two men – not exactly friends, but not yet enemies, either. Their association is composed of both elements, of which the sense of enmity begins to be the stronger. An increasingly unbearable tension develops between them which is reflected in the life of the village. The young man grows more uneasy and depressed as IsmaÔl becomes ever more powerful until, with a new truck and his own private army, he dominates village life and casts a menacing shadow over the young man until the latter reaches the verge of paranoia and madness. Unable to continue teaching, he is left almost completely alone.

The inevitable happens: he murders IsmaÔl. This abrupt act of extreme violence ends a cool, detached but penetrating study of an ominous authoritarian figure, a minor tyrant whose power has begun to extend beyond the bounds of petty officialdom. This intense, glacial fantasy is the work of a literary master. At a subliminal level, it can be read as the intellectual’s despairing and suicidal attack on inhuman political power. It reminded me of the writings of two Africans I have translated: Camara Laye and Tierno MonÈnembo. From the latter’s brave novel Les Crapauds-brousse we learn the nickname taxis-brousse, given to all forms of primitive local long-distance transport, usually open trucks, or at best buses like the one in Habib Selmi’s story.

Such uncomfortable and unreliable modes of transport are found also in Tarek Eltayeb’s Villes sans palmiers, well translated by Paul Henri (L’Esprit des PÈninsules, Paris 1999). In this totally realistic and presumably partly autobiographical work, we find the “hero” leaving home on the back of an open truck driving across the desert to Omdurman. He arrives covered in dust, which turns to a thick mud when he attempts to wash his face and hair.
Tarek Eltayeb is a young novelist born in Cairo of Sudanese parents. His story starts at home in a village lost in the wastes of famine-stricken Sudan. It tells of the gradual struggle for personal freedom of an innocent village boy and his experiences in the school of life that make of him a man of the wider world, a wandering exile who cannot forget his home. The narrator, who has only his youth and strength to recommend him, arrives starving and with very little money in the capital Khartoum. He is taken on by a gang of criminals who siphon petrol from car tanks at night to “remedy poor government distribution”. Then he tries in vain to find work in the huge fruit and vegetable market. He breaks into the stores after dark and steals quantities of spices that he sells on the streets, until he is noticed by a shopkeeper who engages him for a paltry wage and a bed in the store. The storekeeper has three wives, and our hero and the neglected second wife, who – like the others – has not borne the boss any children, start a clandestine love affair in the store after hours. It is the boy’s first experience of sexual love, and it irradiates the poverty of his daily life. But when the woman becomes pregnant, to the joy of the boss who reinstates her in his bed, she no longer has any interest in her lover. Broken-hearted, he escapes on a slow train to Wadi Halfa, where he sails down the Nile to the Aswan Dam. There he boards a train that takes fifteen hours to reach Cairo.

Totally at a loss in that city, he falls in with a joyous gang of youths who initiate him into the mysteries of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar and the delights of a kebab and kofta restaurant. Then they all take an air-conditioned bus to Port Said, where in the huge duty-free zone he learns to buy cheap clothes and other goods to sell at a good profit in the Cairo markets. For the first time, he becomes fairly well-off, and sends money home, buys gorgeous dolls for his sisters and a gold chain for his mother (whose amulet he has been wearing ever since he left home). But when he returns to his village he finds it in ruins, his family all dead. Then begin his long wanderings through the capitals of Europe – Rome, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. (He now lives in Vienna . . .)

The book is entertaining and touching. The reader finds himself passionately concerned about the young man, and keeps willing him to make good. We get a feeling of real life passing before our eyes, with sometimes very odd details: for example, there is a sudden fleeting description of men defecating in public at an Arab port – a scene that by curious coincidence also occurs in Habib Selmi’s novel when the young teacher sees a starving child shitting blood on a road. Such incidents are treated in a detached way, without sensationalism. But they may be a shock for most readers, who are not likely to find that kind of documentary detail in our anally-retentive British literary scene. But Eltayeb’s book also has its tender, lyrical pages, and once started it is difficult to put down. It is sensational, original and altogether a magnificent literary debut.

Another surprising literary debut comes from France in a little book of 150 small pages, Boumkoeur, which the author calls a novel. It is the first work of a very young Algerian /Sudanese, Rachid DjaÔdani, who has had the good luck to be published by Seuil in Paris and to make a memorable appearance enlivening Bernard Pivot’s rather staid TV literary chat show. It has a brief preface by the sensational beur pop group NTM (Nique Ta MËre) which sets the tone for a wild sequence of funny and violent events in a mainly Arab suburb. It is continually entertaining, not least because of the vibrant street slang (tchatche) and verlan (a supposedly “secret” thieves’ back-to-front cant which in fact is quite easy to follow, especially in print. If not, Le Dico de la Banlieue published by La Sirgne, one of the many fascinating new dictionaries of arcane, abstruse ghetto dialect, could help. DjaÔdani’s little bundle of nervous joy and street-smart slang became an overnight best-seller.

From Morocco there has been a stream of new publications by writers mainly unknown outside Arab-speaking lands. One of the most interesting is Les Grottes de Tanger by Mohamed Azeddine Tazi, translated well by Mounia Makrami (CircÈ). It is a delightful portrait of Tangier today, describing the many changes that have occurred there over the last thirty years. It is also a reluctant farewell to the entrancing city we knew in the old days, an exercise in dream-like nostalgia uniting the realities of the present and the shades of our imagination. Tangier is always changing, but her street life remains forever unexpected and exciting. Recommended reading for that next visit to Morocco.

Another Moroccan, Fouad Laroui, has written three amusing novels in French, all published by Editions Julliard: Les dents du topographe (1996) won the Prix DÈcouverte Albert Camus. The second, De quel amour blessÈ (1998) was garlanded with the Prix Beur FM and the Prix MÈditerranÈe des LycÈens. His new novel, MÈfiez-vous des parachutistes (1999) is set in Casablanca and is a satirical phantasmagoria beginning with a parachutist dropping from the skies into the path of a young engineer just arrived back in Morocco from a French university to take up his first job. He takes the parachutist under his wing until he can recover from the shock of his fall. But soon the guest takes root in the small apartment, accommodating his friends, nephews and even his wife, and disrupting the tedious daily life of the poor young bachelor bureaucrat harried by unpredictable and incompetent officials and by scheming bosses who lead scandalous lives of bribery and corruption. The sharply-drawn, eccentric or banal characters are victims of their own cupidity, blinded by dreams of wealth and power that burst like bubbles in Morocco’s indescribable confusion of morals, social status, politics and indifference to everything but self-interest. He writes like Evelyn Waugh in Put Out More Flags or in that caustic travel book Scoop about a war correspondent in IsmaÔlia. At the same time, Laroui unfailingly proves his sincere affection for Morocco, its people and their unusual ways of life. And it is all composed in sparkling, idiomatic, up-to-the-minute French.

Arabs are born story-tellers, which is perhaps one of the reasons why they write such good short stories. A new selection of these, Des nouvelles du Maroc (Paris-MÈditerranÈe, 1999), contains work by both well-known authors and new names. Nearly all write originally in French, with an admirable fluency and a mastery of vocabulary that is one of the joys of Arab French literary style.

One of the new writers, Leila Safraoui, in Le Mandat (The Postal Order) contributes a dramatic little tale about a poor country woman who is robbed of the cash she has received at the post office by a knife-wielding taxi driver.

There are further good contributions by famous names such as Mohamed Choukri, Salim Jay, Abdelhak Serhane, Abdelfattah Kilito, Karim Nasseri and the promising Rachid O, who has already, before the age of thirty, published three books from Gallimard that have met with enthusiastic critical response: L’Enfant Èbloui, Plusieurs vies and Chocolat chaud, all tenderly descriptive of a happy childhood and sexually-troubled youth in Rabat and of his present life in Paris. Mohamed Tabi, born in 1973 in Paris, writes the best story in the collection, La Torpeur, a delirious movie-like script about the beurs of the banlieues. He proves to be an original free-wheeling social observer and street entertainer in the making, full of impeccable ‘tchatche’.

beurs – back-slang for Arab

From Banipal 6 - Autumn 1999

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