"The Words of Others" at Beirut francophone book fair
The theme of Beirut’s twentieth francophone book fair, the Salon du livre, was Les mots des autres… the words of others: an elegant and appropriate title for what proved to be one of the most interesting fairs in recent years. © Salon du livre
Last updated: November 16, 2013

"The Words of Others" at Beirut francophone book fair

Banner Icon The theme of Beirut’s twentieth francophone book fair, the Salon du livre, was Les mots des autres… the words of others: an elegant and appropriate title for what proved to be one of the most interesting fairs in recent years.

The fair hosted over 150 authors from the French-speaking world, and boasted a wide array of lectures and panel discussions around books that appeared in the past year. Among them was Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf, Goncourt recipient and member of the prestigious Académie Française.

In an interview at the fair, he referred to the speech he delivered on the occasion of his induction to the Académie. He said he had started by stating that he rolled his “r”s in the fashion of Ronsard, Rabelais, Racine, Richelieu, and Louis XIV. This link to France’s most eminent writers and statesmen was Maalouf’s witty reminder that Lebanon adopted the French language long before the brief period of the French mandate in the twentieth century.

Issues of bilingualism, of identity, of translation, and of culture resulted in spirited discussions about the reading and writing processes. Language, in all its dimensions, was the unifying leitmotif of the Salon.

Mother tongue?

Writers between two languages was the topic of a panel moderated by author and critic Georgia Makhlouf. It brought together multicultural and multilingual writers Dany Laferrière (Haiti and Canada) who just published “Journal d’un écrivain en pyjama”;  Metin Arditi (Turkey and  Switzerland) author of “La confrèrie des moines volants”;  Jabbour Douaihy (Lebanon), who just received the Prix de la Jeune Littérature Arabe for his translated novel “St. Georges regardait ailleurs”, and Charif Majdalani (self-styled Mediterranean) who has the distinction of having been short-listed for  four major literary awards, including the Renaudot, the Fémina and the Médicis for his epic novel “Le Dernier Seigneur de Marsad.”

The writers debated the concept of a mother tongue, with Laferrière challenging its validity if considered without its emotional and physical addenda: the lyrical but nonsensical rhythms of cooing and lullabies, the warmth, the smell, the touch and the pleasure of a mother’s presence.

“My novels are very easy to translate, because my Arabic is so strongly influenced by my French.”

For Laferrière, the issue of language has nothing to do with motherhood. It is political. He was exiled from Haiti, where Creole was the language of the colonial power. It was the language of impotence and poverty. It was the language of the white Frenchman who colonized his island.

“As I was learning it, I also learned to hate it.”

Fleeing Haiti, he was confronted by a new paradox: in Canada, the language of the oppressed, of the colonized, was French.

Asked what his mother tongue was, Arditi refused to be boxed in, insisting that he had several mother tongues, since he grew up speaking Turkish, French, German, Greek and Judeo-Spanish with different members of his family.

“Why do I have to choose one language? It is easier to cocoon oneself in the simplicity of one identity, but I choose not to have to make simple choices. I wish we could have many religions, for instance. I am comfortable as an Orthodox Christian, as a Western Christian, as a Muslim and as a Jew. I belong to all these traditions.”

Jabbour Douaihy is a Lebanese author who can only write his novels in Arabic, although he teaches in French at the Lebanese University, and is a literary critic for the French literary monthly “L’Orient Littéraire.” Douaihy explained that, as fluent as he is in French, he can only “play” with the language of fiction in Arabic.

“I can push the Arabic language in a way that I can’t do in French.”

However, because he is essentially the product of a western literary tradition, he realizes that his Arabic is often a translation from the French, as if it were superimposed on it.

“My novels are very easy to translate, because my Arabic is so strongly influenced by my French.”

Unlike Douaihy, Charif Majdalani’s Levantine roots were expressed unequivocally in French. His mother, of Lebanese origin, grew up in Egypt and was immersed in a francophone culture at home and at school. His mother tongue is French and he writes exclusively in French, although he is also rooted in his Lebanese identity. Majdalani has no discomfort with the melding of languages, identities and cultures, instead he seems to relish it.

“We are defined by the mother tongue, but although three of us here on this panel write in French, we do not have the same language: We each use the language to fit our purpose and who we are.  A language is appropriated; we make it serve us.”

The soul of a language

“Do languages have souls?” asked Makhlouf. “Arabic is said to be a sentimental language, whereas French is rational, Cartesian. Are languages like a costume that we put on, thus acquiring a whole culture?”

Arditi responded: “What makes the beauty of a text is the accuracy of its sentiments. It is the capturing of both surprise and conviction. The difficulty of writing lies in the difficulty of reading men’s hearts. The words come by themselves, not as a language. The difficulty is not linked to the language in which you write but rather in expressing what you think you have understood about what goes on at the heart of things.”

According to Laferrière, language bears witness to culture. “When you read a French translaton of Hemingway or Miller, you know that you are reading American English. Those writers could not be Mauriac. Each culture carries its own references, attitudes, mores.”

ALSO READ: Ten favorite Arabic novels…ever

These authors have chosen to live in a state of displacement, they are third culture products of a colonial past and a modernist – that tired word – globalization, and they want to tell their stories. Arditi escapes those who will not accept the fluidity of his identities, each pegged to a language he calls his own. Laferrière lives in a political exile imposed by a dictator who has trapped him in two cultures and two languages. His refuge is his writing, what he calls “reaching down to the bare bones of the alphabet” to find respite: “for when we read, and when we write, we are silent.” Douaihy lives in a bilingual world whose dialectic fuels his writing, and Majdalani’s exile is a synthesis of his cultures expressed by his embrace of a rich and limpid French, culled from his maternal Levantine roots, to write about the Lebanese experience.

In his speech to the Académie Française, Amin Maalouf also said that myths tell us what history does not remember. When Zeus, disguised as a bull, abducted Europa on the Phoenician coast, she gave her name to the continent on the other side of the Mediterranean. Europe's brother, Cadmus, went looking for her, bringing with him the Phoenician alphabet, which led to the Greek alphabet and the spread of its civilization. This gift of letters, said Maalouf, is the debt that ancient Greece owed ancient Phoenicia. It is the gift that celebrates cultures and identities using  “les mots des autres.” 

Mishka Mojabber Mourani
Mishka Mojabber Mourani was born in Egypt of Greek and Lebanese parents, and has lived in Australia. Mishka speaks five languages and has published a number of short stories and essays. She authored Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir (Dar An-Nahar, Beirut, 2009) and translated to English Faiseur de réalités (Maker of Realities, 2011) by Antoine Boulad. Most recently, she co-authored a poetry collection entitled Alone, Together (Kutub, Beirut, 2012). Her writing deals with the themes of war, memory, identity, exile and gender issues.
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