Georges Schehadé, Edmond Jabès and Kateb Yacine
Georges Schehadeh (1905-1989), Edmond Jabès (1912-1991) and Kateb Yacine (1929-1989) belong to an era of French literature in the predominantly Arab-Muslim Mediterranean region. In Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria, all three received, during the first half of the 20th century, a French-language education, French being sometimes their mother tongue, and in all three cases becoming their language of culture. They contributed to the rise of a French-language literature in budding national cultural spaces, composing their works in the context of colonization, followed by decolonization, as their countries of birth gradually gained independence. The French Mandate in the Middle East, which officially succeeded the Ottoman domination in 1922, and created the State of Greater Lebanon after the abolition of Emir Faisal’s Arab Kingdom, ended in 1943. As for Egypt, theoretically independent since 1922, it would not be free from British interference before 1953, with the abolition of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic. Algeria finally gained the right to self-determination in 1962, following a long war against colonial France. In these political circumstances, the three authors experienced exile or, at least, the need to move away temporarily or permanently from their native countries. As it happens, they all ended their days in France.
So, their paths were parallel to a certain extent. And yet, they involve very different situations, so much so that it would be improper to include them in the same French-language literary field. The era of French-language literature on the eastern and southern rims of the Mediterranean which they represent, alongside a few other writers, who, just like them, stand out as leading figures, from the Mashriq to the Maghreb, did in no way yield a homogeneous literary system. In other words, even if we could identify similar dynamics in their paths, they were carried out differently, depending on contexts and individuals, in relatively cut off spaces. In this regard, the path of Gabriel Bounoure, who moved from Lebanon to Egypt, and then to Morocco, playing a significant role in the lives of Schehadeh and Jabès, is viewed as an exception. The main dynamic is that which links a center, that is France, and specifically Paris, as a source for the transfer of models and literary recognition, to peripheries where, in a multicultural and multilingual environment dominated by Arabic, a French-language literary field with some local autonomy did not always emerge. In this respect, there is a gradation from Egypt to Lebanon to Algeria.
The relationship between center and periphery does not necessarily imply a confrontational attitude on the part of writers towards the center, and in turn, the lack of confrontation does not imply a simply mimetic relation. The works, caught between two worlds for being written in French, are not judged based on stands determined by rigid political and cultural polarities. Each of them deals, in its own way, with its linguistic and cultural insecurity, converting its lack of univocal discursive anchoring into a space for creativity. In fact, they are not merely the result of a relation to a center, but are also determined by their situation, which is more or less marginal according to the dynamics of the place, Lebanon, Egypt or Algeria, where they are initially produced. Having adopted the French language, they introduce, in these initial places of enunciation, a more or less significant difference in comparison to the Arabism having re-emerged since the 19th century, in its linguistic, cultural, political and religious aspects, thus showing a variety of memories and the persistence of an anthropological depth. We can read Schehadeh’s works while ignoring, in his themes and even in the forms of ritualization on which they are based, his family ties to Orthodox Christianity; and Jabès’s works without taking account of Judaism’s questions on the Book or the Creation; and Kateb’s works while overlooking the fear of the Arab-Berber tribal past, for the sole benefit of the militant discourse. These various memories are one of the sources of the hybridization characterizing these works. Without leading to community attachment, this hybridization process rests not on faithfulness, but rather on the transformation of a legacy whose temporality plunges the cultural study beyond immediate history.
But hybridization is governed by another principle, stemming from the poetic act in which each of them recognizes the crucible of his work, regardless of the genre it ends up taking: poetry, novel or theater. Through this principle, the three writers join the powers of change of the western literary modernity since the Romantic Movement. Is it mimetism when the creative impetus is drawn from Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Max Jacob, the surrealism, or even Joyce, Faulkner and Brecht? Some works give in to this easiness, unwittingly resulting in a parodical stylization of a modernity whose principal merit was its deviation from discursive conventions. However, when this modernity is properly reproduced, as is the case with Schehadeh, Jabès and Kateb, it carries in a new context its ability to express a crisis of collective and spiritual values and to allow the emergence of an individuality free from the dependencies based on these values, which entails mobility and an uncertainty of the discursive anchoring, on the way to deterritorialization, in their works
I. Georges Schehadeh or the ide...
II. Edmond Jabès: Reinventing t...
III. Kateb Yacine or the relent...
Georges Schehadeh (1905-1989), Edmond Jabès (1912-1991) and Kateb Yacine (1929-1989) belong to an era of French literature in the predominantly Arab-Muslim Mediterranean region. In Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria, all three received, during the first half of the 20th century, a French-language education, French being sometimes their mother tongue, and in all three cases becoming their language of culture. They contributed to the rise of a French-language literature in budding national cultural spaces, composing their works in the context of colonization, followed by decolonization, as their countries of birth gradually gained independence...
Lecturer in French literature, University of Aix-Marseille