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Sabbath Day: North Africa

June 11, 2015

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What a nice routine for summer sabbaths. At the end of a very long day yesterday, I stepped out to dance to the funky rhythms of the Stella Blues Band. They’re playing the music of the Grateful Dead every Wednesday evening at Garcias in Port Chester. I spent most my day today reading, doing laundry, talking with my partner, reading some more, having dinner with my family, and reading some more.

I read several works out of North Africa this week, mostly short because I am working on a long novel from Egypt for next week. In the Penguin Anthology of contemporary African writing, Gods and Soldiers, I read an outstanding essay by Laila Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, called “The Politics of Reading.” Reflecting upon her childhood in Morocco, Lalami remembers that her first books were all in French (the colonial language). Schools shied away from vernacular writers. Only later did she discover Moroccan authors like Driss Chraibi and Mohamed Choukri, both of whom were banned by the state. Later she discovered literature from other African countries. State censorship plays an important role in the “politics of reading,” as does the colonial legacy and the existence of diaspora communities.

Because of this huge diversity, I think it is quite difficult to speak of one North African literature. Africa is made up of 40 nations, its people speak a multitude of languages and belong to many different religious traditions and ethnic groups. The continent is larger than China, Europe and the United States put together. Just as world maps often shrink the size of Africa to that of South America for representational purposes, speaking of one African literature risks giving the impression that it is a monolithic literature. It risks pointing to a unique literary tradition. It risks equating Africanness with blackness. I think, therefore, that it is more proper to speak up north African and African literature’s.

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And so I read a short story on gender violence by Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt; an excerpt from Mohamed Magini’s novel, The Butchers Aesthetic, set during the civil war in Algeria; another excerpt from fellow Algerian Aziz Chouaki; and a very powerful short by Leila Aboulela of Sudan. This last story is about a young man who got married without his family’s knowledge while away working on an oil rig in the North Sea. When he decides to visit his home home after the wedding, his Scottish wife will not go with him because of “her many fears.” Unable to reconcile his love for his wife with his love for his home country, or to explain the one to the other, he ends up substituting for his richly complex attachments a painting of mud huts and goats composed by a Scottish artist living in Sudan.

Finally, I sought out the poetry of Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan poet born in Benghazi. Here is a poem that reflects that “huge diversity” spoken of by Laila Lalami within the poet himself.

mattawa

HISTORY OF MY FACE

My lips came with a caravan of slaves
That belonged to the Grand Sanussi.
In Al-Jaghbub he freed them.
They still live in the poor section of Benghazi
Near the hospital where I was born.

They never meant to settle
In Tokara those Greeks
Whose eyebrows I wear
–then they smelled the wild sage
And declared my country their birthplace.

The Knights of St. John invaded Tripoli.
The residents of the city
Sought help from Istanbul. In 1531
The Turks brought along my nose.

My hair stretches back
To a concubine of Septimus Severus.
She made his breakfast,
Bore four of his sons.

Uqba took my city
In the name of God.
We sit by his grave
And I sing to you:
Sweet lashes, arrow-sharp,
Is that my face I see
Reflected in your eyes?

Most of my time this week was spent reading Alaa Al Aswany’s international bestseller, The Yakoubian Building. When it was published in 2002 it was the first Egyptian novel to name and portray government corruption and hypocrisy. In 2011 Foreign Policy put Aswany first on their list of the “top 100 global thinkers.” During the Arab Awakening, he was in the streets every day in Tahrir Square. It seemed to many citizens that they were living the revolution called for by Aswany’s novel.

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