On 4 November I read extracts from works by the Dutch and Flemish authors Benno Barnard, Gerrit Kouwenaar and Hugo Claus at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The multilingual multimedia performance ‘I Died in Hell - They Called it Passchendaele’ showcased lyrical responses to the ‘Great War’ from across Europe.
In the life and work of the Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali (1975) themes of travelling, migration and movement are closely connected. Benali has lived in Beirut, Rotterdam and Rome, and uses these and many other places as backdrops of his literary imaginings. During the Travelling and Translation event at UCL’s new Centre for Low Countries Studies, the author explains how traveling can set off ‘language machines’.
An accomplished long-distance runner, Benali is always on the move. Before he came to London, he ran the Marrakech half marathon in an hour and a half. Morocco also provided the scenery for his debut novel Wedding by the Sea (in Dutch: Bruiloft aan Zee (1997)), which launched him into the Dutch literary scene at the age of 21. In the novel Benali created alluring images of migrants returning to, what he calls, ‘their authentic place’.
Having moved from Morocco to the Netherlands himself at 4 years old, he argues that the impact of migration sharpened his sense of early memories. Whilst learning Dutch at his new school, he intuitively understood that grammar positioned him in a complex society: ‘I am; you are; he is… I soon realised that language is always about social relationships.
Benali recognises creative possibilities in passed-on memories too. He refers anecdotally to his parents chatting about their Berber village, at home in Rotterdam: ‘My parents definitely weren’t storytellers, but through gossip, through their fascination with personal relations, I always felt I knew the people in their Moroccan village well.’ It was exactly because communication in the 80s was limited, that his imagination came into play. His grandfather would travel 30 miles on horseback to find a phone booth in the next big city to call his father.
The imagination of the young eavesdropper sparked when Benali picked up snippets of conversations about rainfall and potato growth: ‘It is the absences in gossip, the gaps in communication that allow a writer to create interesting images of place.’
An attentive teacher at his primary school noticed Abdelkader’s talent for observation. ‘Mister Bart’ encouraged the boy to bring a notebook on his family’s travel to Morocco during the summer holidays. The notebook was bound to get lost on the journey, but this ‘memory gap’ eventually inspired De stem van mijn moeder (2009, My Mother’s Voice). Benali describes this novel about a Moroccan family in Rotterdam as a study of different responses to migration. The novel’s main character is one of a twin, a successful photographer – a nod to the importance of visuals to Benali.
Though ‘My Mother’s Voice’ roughly discusses the same themes of his first novel (a migrant family re-visits Morocco), there are clear differences. Less echoes of Rushdie’s magical-realism; more – often funny – contemporary sketches of intergenerational misunderstandings, prejudices about migrants in the Netherlands and mid-thirties anxiety. Many voices occur in the novel: in the end, it is up to the reader to figure out whose story she has actually heard.
Perhaps forced upon him since his early debut, Benali has gradually acquired a self-assured public persona and skilled social media presence. He is often asked to present ‘the Moroccan migrant view’ in Dutch media or to comment on multiculturalism. It seems natural that he has become more outspokenly political.
Frustrated with the harsh speech that has hijacked conversations about migration in his country, he says: ‘People who are younger than me, who lived in the Netherlands far shorter than I did, now tell me I should leave and go “home”… I remember when the Berlin Wall came down; the sense of hopeful excitement amongst teachers at my school stuck with me. The EU is now encouraging the building of walls everywhere.’ Not without irony he refers to Moroccans in Morocco echoing the current migration debate in Holland: ‘In North Africa they complain about migration from the South now: “These migrants, they will take our jobs; they will steal our money…” Migration, movement, curiosity about others: they’re not bad things at all.’
Benali’s use of the expression ‘language machine’ is apt given that his entire oeuvre seems to generate movement into creative and societal engagement. He has broken down a few walls too, with a contagious and optimistic view on connecting with others. The very literal movements of global migration and exile, of global tourism have a political and environmental impact that shapes all our individual lives. It is an uplifting reminder to hear that there is much creativity and humour to these movements and machines.
This post originally appeared on the UCL Events Blog. Travelling and Translation was the first in a series of events on Dutch language, art and literature at UCL's Centre for Low Countries Studies.
With Time Magazine recently choosing ‘The Protester’ as Person of the Year 2011, it seems a relevant question to ask whether art is capable of protest, of rebelling against tyranny.
On 26 January 2011 the authors Hisham Matar (In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance) and Abdelkader Benali (Dutch Writer in Residence 2011-12 at UCL,Wedding by the Sea) discussed this topic at ‘Time Travels in Literature and Politics’: literature and its response to political suppression.
The event was timely – as chair Jo Glanville, Editor of Index on Censorship, pointed out: it was exactly a year after the uprising in Egypt. Matar and Benali are both rooted in the Arab-speaking world: Benali was born in Morocco, before moving to the Netherlands in 1979, aged four. His first novel, Wedding by the Sea (1996, English transl. 2000), discusses a theme that he would often revisit, that of the intermingling of East and West, aptly visualised by his latest title Oost=West (2011,‘East=West’).
Hisham Matar’s personal history is uncomfortably topical: his father was considered a threat to the Libyan authorities, and was abducted by the Gadaffi regime in 1990. Matar has not seen or heard of his father since.
The Arab Spring and Gadaffi’s downfall made Libya world news in 2011; Matar’s novels (2006 and 2011), however, made readers around the world familiar with living under the Libyan dictatorship on a far more personal scale.
It is exactly this personal scale that Benali and Matar say is essential to literature written in response to political events. Their own writing seems to focus on small gestures, family ties, relationships.
Neither of them feels the need to write ‘the Great Arab Spring Novel’. “That simply sounds ridiculous,” Benali said. The two writers share a fear of ‘Big Histories’, especially when it comes to describing the recent revolutionary events in the Arab countries.
Benali expands: “9/11 has brought the Big Story back. And it is suffocating. I am looking for more nuances.” When Benali lived in Beirut during the Lebanese war in 2006, he felt it was important to speak to people on the ground. The chance meetings he described as a result were very different impressions of war than the ones the Dutch media presented. Matar: “It is difficult to understand what it is – what we call – the Arab Spring. I don’t claim I do. I find it tough to pronounce.”
Because of his personal history, Matar is often seen as a natural spokesman for freedom of expression. But the author quickly says that writing never made him feel particularly brave. To speak out against the dictator Gadaffi brought more anxiety and instability to Matar’s life. “It was perverse, more so than heroic; it was a tangible trauma. I secretly admired the ones who could stay quiet.”
Benali can relate to the attachment of shame to writing. His debut novel was written at his parents’ place, in a house that contained no more than two books, the Koran and the Yellow Pages. He was told to stop reading before his eye sight would turn bad. “I wrote about my family whilst I was living under their roof. I felt sad and guilty, watching them as if I were an anthropologist. It was as if I took revenge on them.”
“Literature is rebellious by nature, because it detaches itself from reality,” according to Matar. And, therefore, writing is a solitary protest: “In the end we are alone, because we distance ourselves through writing”.
I might argue otherwise, saying that Benali’s and Matar’s writing has brought readers closer to political events – both up close and personal. Though the exact rebellious impact of literary writing is impossible to measure – and may even be quite uninteresting – this event showcased a humanity and humility in writing from the Arab world, and a variety of protests against Big Narratives that are favoured by oppressors.
The event Time Travels in Literature and Politics (January 2012) was organised by the UCL Department of Dutch, with support from Index on Censorship and the Royal Dutch Embassy.
My blog first appeared as part of the UCL Event Blog.
What makes me tick?
I am interested in the links between art and society. I never doubted that art can help us gain insight into societal issues. I like to work on projects that confirm this.
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