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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (2)

February 17th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Intellectuals, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists, Translation, Uncategorized


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(2nd installment)


The Islamic world has been unceasingly  inconsolable in its destitution. It knew one very high point of civilization, accompanied by the boldness of hegemony. If we go back to the notion of “world capital” as proposed by Fernand Braudel, it is reasonable to suggest that before its displacement towards Europe, this concept was concretized in the Abassid Baghdad of the ninth and tenth centuries, in the Fatimid Cairo of the eleventh and the Mameluke Cairo of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. After that the world capital crossed over to the north shore of the Mediterranean with the Genoa-Venice duo, before it exiled itself, departing ever further from the Islamic world, by setting up first in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, then in London in the nineteenth  and in New York in the twentieth century — while hereafter we probably will see a process of migration towards the Pacific coast in the dense interactions between Asia and North America. Since the fifteenth century, the world-capital has thus moved geographically ever further away from the Islamic space.

For Islam, entropy has been at work since the fourteenth century, but it is only toward the end of the eighteenth (with Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt) that the Muslims themselves began to become conscious they are no longer at the same level as the West.  It is this lateness, this lag, which allowed a number of countries belonging to the Islamic territories to be colonized because they found themselves in the situation of the colonizable. The Muslim subject, who claimed superiority to or at least equality with the Western subject, cannot grasp the process that has led him to such weakness when faced with the centuries-old counterpart, enemy or adversary, or at times partner and even ally, depending on the circumstances. In reaction to this state of affairs, ressentiment against the Occidentals will arise among Arabs and Muslims. (I am taking up the very useful concept of ressentiment as developed by Nietzsche in On The Genealogy of Morals.[1]) Nietzsche himself thought that the Muslim (or more precisely, Arab) subject was someone who belonged to a people who throughout the ages had acted more in conformity with aristocratic morality, the morality of affirmation, someone who illuminates, someone who gives without trying to receive [2]. The situation of the man of ressentiment, on the other hand, is to be in the position of the one who receives but who does not have the means to give; he is the one who cannot affirm. Thus the Muslim subject is no longer the man of the “yes” that illuminates the world and creates a naturally hegemonic being. From sovereign being he has slowly become the man of the “no,” the one who refuses, who is no longer active but only re-active, the one who accumulates hatred and waits only for the hour of revenge. This sentiment, initially unknown to the Islamic subject, will imperceptibly grow in him and take over his center. I believe that the fundamentalist actions whose agent is the Muslim subject can be explained by the growth of the subject’s ressentiment, a condition that had historically been unknown to him since his first appearance as an stage of history as an individual.

This new feeling did not install itself mechanically after the defeat of colonial confrontation: much time passed before the germ of ressentiment started to grow. As proof of this I would propose the figure of the Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883), who had lost nothing of his aristocratic dignity despite the defeat of 1847, his incarceration in France and his expatriation towards the Orient in 1852. He never knew ressentiment. This man of the sword and the pen dedicated himself in his Damascene exile to the teaching of the esoteric sciences, deepening the centuries-old furrow of his master Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) whose works he interpreted and published. During the troubles of 1860,  he will apply the Akhbarian doctrine that preaches the equality of beliefs.[3] Absent from Damascus when Muslims (carried away by the herd instinct that characterizes masses) attacked the Christians of the city, but hearing that vile events had shaken the city, he hurried back and saved many lives; he had the Christians gather in groups and led them to safety in the citadel.

A Christian survivor, Mikhayil Mishaqa, bore witness to this action. Hundreds of fugitives (European consuls and Syrian Christians) fled towards Abd el-Kader’s quarters on the banks of the river Barada, and the excited crowd wanted to attack them. So the emir “had his horse saddled.” [4]  The same emir recalls in one of his Mawaqif  (“Spiritual Stations”) how during one of his Damascus sessions, he was questioned by a member of the audience who was worried about the effects of the defeat on the Muslims: these had started to imitate the Christians (i.e. the Westerners) in the way they dressed, ate and lived. In short, one is faced with an early questioning of the acculturation in the process of being experienced by the Islamic countries at the beginning of the Westernization of the world.[5]

We cannot find the smallest trace of ressentiment in the emir’s response. After a traditional theological argument (if the Muslim subject has known defeat, it must have been because he was tepid and negligent in the service his God asked him to perform); after another argument of psychological common sense (it is a fact of human nature that, through fascination, the vanquished imitate the victor, and will even go so far as to learn his language); after an accurate sociological observation (first adopted by the elite, the process of imitation then propagates like poison throughout the whole social body); the emir than remembers the theory of Divine Names as constructed by his medieval master (Ibn ‘Arabi), the names that govern all human activities and preside over all events that occur; thus he invents the divine name of Khadhil (the deserting god who abandons you) to explain the defeat of the Muslim in the face of the European (which was nothing else than the emir’s own defeat).

Even if such a name can be traced to a verbal form in Holy Writ (the Qur’an says: “If Allah assists you, then there is none that can overcome you, and if He forsakes you — yakddhulu-kum —, who is there then that can assist you after Him?”), it is clear that the emir’s invention is of astonishing audacity.[6] His boldness is the sign of a freedom that can at least be assimilated to what traditional theology calls a bid’a, a blamable innovation. All through his development, the emir is inspired by the following verse: God abandons the Muslims without aiding the infidels. The defeat of the believer is due to God’s abandonment; but the unbeliever’s victory does not result from His help. This vision of divine effect, negative for oneself without being positive for the enemy, preserves the horizon of faith during the ordeal.

Thus aristocratic man believes himself to have enough sovereignty to take the liberty to invent the actualization of tradition; and it is his familiarity with the hermeneutical method of ta’wil that authorizes and legitimizes his action. This familiarity predisposes him to emulate his audacious predecessors. Such doctrinal boldness cannot be in the reach of the half-educated who today are legion in Islamic societies, which during the period of decolonization have experienced democratization without ever tasting democracy. It is in such a context that the mutation took place: from being aristocratic, the Muslim subject gradually became the man of ressentiment, this frustrated, dissatisfied man who believes himself to be better than the conditions imposed on him; like every half-educated person, he turns out to be (in his accumulated refusals and hatreds) a candidate for revenge, predisposed to insurrectionary action and all it demands in terms of dissimulation and sacrifice.

But the real origin of this development, which lies at the point where psychology and ethics intersects, is the end of creativity, the end of the contributions that made Islamic civilization.  Since he has become aware of his sterility, the Islamic subject has grown inconsolable in his bereftness. Now, this state of affairs does not date from the colonial era; the imperial role that the majority of Islamic countries experienced is not the cause of their decline but the consequence of it: the Muslim subject had not been creative for several centuries in the scientific domain, nor was he a master of technical development. It took him more than a century to master technology, something that happened in the postcolonial phase; as I have already said, it is the phase of the Americanization of the world that permitted this acquisition. It belongs to the domain of consumption and functioning, and not to that of production and invention. It is useful primarily for the expansion of markets. However, apart from some individuals of Islamic origin working in Western research institutions, the Muslim subject, inside the horizon of his own symbolic and linguistic territoriality, remains excluded from the scientific spirit. He is not involved in the conception of the airplane, nor in its invention, nor even in its production, but he can pilot the flying machine very well, and go as far as to steer it to destruction.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufman, Vintage. Cf. pp 36-40, 121-129.

[2] ibid. p. 41.

[3] Akhbarian: Ibn Arabi was known as “el sheikh el-akhbar,” the great sheikh or master. (Translator’s note.)

[4] Mikhayil Mishaqa, Murder, Mayhem, Pillage and Plunder: The History of Lebanon in the 18th and 19th centuries, translated by W.M. Thackston Jr., State University of New York Press, Albany 1988.

[5] Al-Mawâqif, station 364, volume III, folio 97 verso and folio 99 recto, reproduction /hors commerce/ of the partially autograph manuscript, published on the occasion of the emir’s centenary, Algiers, 1983. A choice of these stations was translated from Arabic into French by Michel Chodkievicz in: Emir Abd el-Kader, Ecrits Spirituels, Le Seuil, Paris 1982.

[6] Qur’an, III,160.


The major events in Islam happened very early on. But the process of their mutation was interrupted too soon. The very beginning of the ninth century saw the birth of a rationalist movement animated by those whom we call the Mu’tazilites. These thinkers tried to disrupt two then dominant ideas: they criticized the Islamic dogma which states that the Qur’an (like God) is uncreated and has come down from heaven as it is in itself and in eternity. Their answer to this dogma is that, indeed, the Qur’an is of divine origin, but that the concretization of the Holy Writ in a terrestrial language can only be created by God at the moment of its Revelation. These sectarians think that those who claim that the Qur’an is uncreated are installing an Islamic equivalent of the Christian sense of incarnation: the Qur’anic letter would thus be the incarnation of God. The literalists could thus easily be mistaken as Christians who identify Christ with God because he is His Word. These Mu’tazilites removed God from the world, they gave him back to his unknowability, they neutralized him in a transcendence that liberated mankind from predestination and made it alone responsible for its actions.

This theological movement became the official state ideology — the Caliph himself, al-Ma’mun (786-833), the son of Harun al-Rashid, wanted to impose it on all his subjects.[1] The Caliphate in fact set up a sort of inquisition (the Mihna, inaugurated in 833) that attacked with great violence the contemporary literalist school in the person of its most eloquent representative Ibn Hanbal (780-circa 855). It is important to remember this moment in history because in the genealogy of fundamentalism it is impossible not to refer to this ninth century personage, who was subjected to the worst tortures because in the name of his literalism he refused to accept the theses of the Mu’tazilites. His resistance found echo and support among people anxious for the return of Qur’anic orthodoxy.

The great limitation of the Mu’tazilites’ rationalist movement was that it did not succeed in evolving into an Enlightenment, above all because it sought to impose its point of view through the most radical violence, using the means at the disposal of an Oriental despot (al-Ma’mun wanted to extend his power over the theological domain as a whole; to achieve this aim he gave himself the title of imam and imposed his interpretation on the constituted bodies of the ulemas, scholars in theology). Orthodoxy was reestablished at the center of power as soon as Mutawakkil, the third successor of al-Mamun, took over (847). Now the Mu’tazilites were made to suffer in their turn — first by their complete marginalization  and then by their slow but certain extinction — what they had made their adversaries suffer,  who not only survived them but prospered.

During this period (as precocious in its conflicts as in its complexity and promise), the Caliph al-Mamun played an important role in acclimatizing the Greek heritage in the Arab language. This Caliph, so tradition tells us, had a dream of Aristotle, who asked him to have his books translated into Arabic. It is as if every process that leads to an Enlightenment were triggered by a love for the Greeks and the restoration of their ways of thinking and feeling. During a campaign against the Byzantines, al-Mamun came across the Neo-platonic community of the Sabæns in the Harran; a bold fatwa likened them formally to the enigmatic Sabi’un, to whom the Qur’an had given the status of a people of the Book: “Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabæns, …”[2]. So the Holy Book put the Sabaens on equal footing with the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians. These Sabæns will provide Islam with a number of scholars and translators from the Greek.

The caliph al-Mamun encouraged the confrontation of ideas in the heart of the city by organizing controversies between sectarians of diverse faiths and between Muslim theologians of various schools of thought. Already at this early period our literalists were stubbornly opposed to any foreign borrowings as well as to the presence, in the city, of contradictory voices, which their ears perceived as blasphemous. Yet this staging of a forum where disagreement was presented was itself the work of a ruler. Which keeps us from affirming that the exercise of reason, in its triumph, was accompanied by freedom – which remained the great unknown, especially in its political form.

It was in this Baghdad of the first part of the ninth century that the great scientific adventure of Arabic literature begins, an adventure that will last into the sixteenth century; it is at this time that the school of astronomy of Baghdad was created, founded both on speculative calculations and on observation. It is also in this city that algebra was invented by al-Khwarizmi, who dedicated his treatise to al-Mamun.

Besides this scientific movement, a poetic revolution was born that reminds us of the poetic revolution that took place in France in the nineteenth century. If the reader is able to take into account context and transhistoricity, it becomes possible to taste how the words of these Arab poets resonate with those of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and even Mallarmé. In the body of work created by these Arab poets one can distinguish poetic processes as varied as those of the French poets I have just cited. To keep from encumbering the reader with too many names, let me just cite the recognizably Mallarméan case of the Syrian Christian poet Abu Tammam (806-845) — his father ran a tavern in Damascus. By using odd syntactical devices, rare words, antitheses and abstractions, and by a cultivation of paronomasia, he inflected the occasional verse that was his chosen genre (panegyrics, threnodies, satires, description of battles) towards a hieratic and hermetic poetry that demands interpretation, and that comes to its full realization only in the fullness of commentary.  His is the following rather compassionate and limpid (he was able to write like that too) distich that speaks of the eternity of love in a dialectic of absence and presence :

What is it consoles me in your absence
if not the memory of you which doesn’t fade

Of all the guests you are the closest and
even if you are far sadness brings you close [3]

To show a likeness with Baudelaire, the emergence of a critical and scandalous individual making use of transgression as the engine of the poem, I will evoke Abu Nuwas (762-circa 813): he was one of the most radical figures of this poetic revolution. An Arab-Persian poet writing very provocatively in Arabic, he sang the praises of wine (forbidden in Islam) and homosexual love; he was an existentialist who brought his own experiences to bear on his poems. The critics of his era saw him as the main figure of the school of the Moderns (the Muhdathun).  In a polemical way he turned his back on the poetry of Arab origins rooted in the desert and in nomadism. He considered that way of being a throwback to the poverty that marked its region and to the difficult life such penury engenders; to the original desert he contrasted the conquest of the metropolis and the pleasures it provides, all the way to the tragedy of profligate spending and excess that make for the jouissance of the provocative and reckless dandy as well as for the wear and tear on him, diverted from religious practice by what presents itself to his senses. Moreover, he helped impose a quasi arithmetic formal unity and rigor onto a rhapsodic, discontinuous, unbridled poetic tradition. We still read this poetry from the high Middle Ages as if it had been written yesterday, as if the ink had not yet had time to dry. Just imagine those spectacular moments of creation happening in that workshop opened in Baghdad in the ninth century! As you can see, the attempt to renovate took place very early on, but it was aborted.

The following two poetic extracts illustrate the mischievous joy of this lively transgressor, whose verbal lushness could certainly be likened to the ‘abath, that scandalous vanity which discredits any art form in the eyes of our narrow-minded contemporary fundamentalists:

Serve me and serve Joseph
this tasty wine
that makes one thrill

Push trouble out of your life
keep only its peace

Fill my glass to the brim
I don’t want cups
that are only half full

Put down the gourd
and beside it the Book

Drink three glasses
and recite a verse

Good has mingled with bad
and if God forgives

He will win in whom the one
has wiped out the other, basta!

Or, from another one:

To one who asks me if I want to go to Mecca
I answer yes – when the pleasures
of Baghdad will been exhausted
For how could I make the pilgrimage
as long as I remain immersed
in brothel or tavern? [4]

[1]For information concerning al-Ma’mun, I draw in part on the article concerning him by M. Rekaya in the Encyclopédie de l’Islam, VI. p. 315-323, E.J. Brill and G.P. Maisonneuve & Larose, Leiden-Paris, 1991.

[2]Qur’ān, II,62.

[3] Abu Tammam, Divan, edited and commented by Ilya al-Hawi, section 212, p. 718, 1981. (The translations with no tranlators’ name appended were done from Arabic into French by the author, and from French into Arabic by PJ & CM).

[4] Abu Nuwas, Divan, ed. and with a commentary by A.A.M. al-Ghazali, p. 120 (“Wine and the Qur’ān”) and p. 167 (“The Pleasures of Baghdad”), Beyrouth, 1982. To better know this poet, cf. Jamal Bencheikh, “Poésies bachiques d’Abû Nuwâs, thèmes et personages,” p. 7-83, Bulletin d’études orientales, tome xviii, 1963-1964, Damascus, 1964.

[to be continued]

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (1)

February 16th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Intellectuals, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists, Translation


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(French edition published by Editions Seuil in 2002
English edition [o.p.] published by Basic Books in 2003)

Table of Contents

I.    Islam, Inconsolable in its Destitution

II.   The Genealogy of Fundamentalism

III.  Fundamentalism against the West

IV.  The Western Exclusion of Islam


Islam: Inconsolable in its Destitution


The spectacular attack of September 11, which struck the heart of the United States, is a crime. A crime committed by Islamists. It constitutes the extreme point of a series of terrorist acts that have followed an exponential curve whose beginning I locate in 1979, the year that saw the triumph of Khomeini in Iran and the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops. These two events had considerable effects that reinforced the fundamentalist movements and help the dissemination of their ideology. In order to understand the form this ideology takes, we have to go far back in time. We have to recognize exactly where the letter — the Qur’an and tradition — predisposes to a fundamentalist reading. We have to rediscover the exegetical and theological tradition in order to unravel the way this letter offers means and encouragement to those who retain from its meaning only what summons them to war. We have to discover where the tradition resists, where it is necessary to force it to permit a new interpretation that did not express itself where such a tradition grew. It is important to know if it is possible to read this literal text according to the conditions offered by the mental landscape of our times. We must also denounce the legerdemain and the sleight-of-hand that have perverted the heroic aspect of Islam, by generalizing the concept of the enemy in peacetime. The sectarians who are at the origin of this operation have universalized, generalized,  anathema, excommunication and jihad, holy war, while the tradition has often been careful when touching upon these questions. It is a pressing matter to follow the course of such a genesis, which has ended up producing monsters who have forgotten the reasons of existence, and which transformed a tradition based on the principle of life and the cult of pleasure into a lugubrious race toward death.

On the very day that the two New York towers collapsed in a gigantic cloud of unbreathable dust, at the very moment when thousands of innocent people (whose ethnic, religious, and national variety is a sign of the city’s cosmopolitism) died with the world looking on, at that very instant television showed scenes of rejoicing coming from Palestine and Lebanon. These images — pornographic at a human level, and politically disastrous — in the light of what followed revealed their marginal truth; and the political authorities concerned managed to control the street and to restore it to some decency. But I know that from such images there arise a feeling and an emotion shared by many subjects belonging to the Islamic masses, and I try to understand through what trials or through what education an individual must have passed to be capable of rejoicing in crime.

There are internal and external reasons for this misery. In this book it is my responsibility to insist principally on the internal reasons, without, however, occulting or neglecting the external ones. It is part of the writer’s role to point out the drift of his or her own people and to help open their eyes to what blinds them. I insist, as the saying has it, to start by sweeping in front of my own door. This book, written in French, will be read by numerous readers knowing French and concerned in one way or another by the drama of their own Islamic origins. I address myself to all readers, but I have a special thought for those readers who, like me, have constellated themselves symbolically within the faith of Islam.

To each entity its sickness. This can become so contagious that it turns into a plague ravaging the minds and souls. Voltaire thus analyzed the sickness of intolerance that had kept up its ravages until the Calas affair, occasioned by the death sentence imposed on Jean Calas on  March 9, 1762 by the tribunal of Toulouse. In response, the philosopher of the Enlightenment wrote his Traité sur la tolérance [Treatise on Tolerance], begun in October 1762, in the middle of the campaign to rehabilitate Calas; the book was published in Geneva in April 1763. In this book Voltaire recapitulates the horrors engendered by Catholic fanaticism against the Protestants after 24 August 1572, Saint Bartholomew’s day, when the reformed Christians were massacred in Paris and in the provinces. One of the reasons for the spread of fanaticism is the survival of superstition among the people; and the best way to heal this mortal illness is to subject the greatest possible number to the use of reason. The word “sickness” appears in Voltaire’s book when the author accuses the “convulsionary” Jansenists of cultivating superstition among the people that predisposes them to fanaticism. I hasten to quote this passage even if the reader recognizes in it the biting irony of the master from Ferney, the effect of which may seem inappropriate to the gravity of my subject:

If there still are a few convulsive fanatics in remote corners of the outlying districts, it’s only the basest part of the population which is attacked by this parasitic disease. Each day reason penetrates further into France, into the shops of merchants as well as the mansions of lords. We must cultivate the fruits of this reason, especially since it is impossible to check its advance.

Thomas Mann had to deal with the German sickness, which led him to write Doctor Faustus (published in 1947), an amplification and radicalization of Death in Venice (1919). In it the author denounces the excess of the promethean spirit, which brought so much harm to German thought and art and, as a consequence, to the German people itself. Mann intended to show in that book the flight from the difficulties of the cultural crisis into the pact with the devil, the craving of a proud mind, threatened by sterility, for an unblocking of inhibitions at any cost, and the parallel between pernicious euphoria ending in collapse with the nationalist frenzy of Fascism.

Thomas Mann was thinking about Nietzsche. In the same work, 2 pages later, he confirms the suggestion: it is indeed the author of The Birth of Tragedy who is the unnamed model of the personage of the musician he invented. Even if the German sickness did not spare Nietzsche, I am still led to use one of the concepts of his moral psychology to shed light on an internal state that favors the eruption of the sickness in Islam that I am here proposing to analyze. If fanaticism was the sickness in Catholicism, if Nazism was the sickness in Germany, then surely Fundamentalism is the sickness in Islam.

This is my thesis. That said, I do not, however, intend to claim that that there is a good and an evil Islam, that one has to honor the one and denounce the other. Nor do I insinuate that Fundamentalism is a deformation of Islam. Everyone knows that in Islam there is no institution that legitimates absolute doctrinal magisterium; but traditionally access to the letter was protected: one needed to obey specific conditions  to make it speak or to speak in its name. However, unrestrained access to the letter was not prohibited, and is not a peculiarity of our times.  History has often had to record the disasters such access provokes; only today, thanks to the effects of demography and democratization, the semi-literate have proliferated and the candidates who claim the authority to touch the letter have become much more numerous. The fact that they are so many reinforces their ferocity.

The Qur’anic letter, if submitted to a literal reading, can resonate in the space delimited by the fundamentalist project: it can respond to one who wants to make it talk within the narrowness of those confines; for it to escape, it needs to be invested with the desire of the interpreter. Rather than distinguishing a good Islam from a bad Islam, it would be better for Islam to open itself to debate and discussion, to rediscover the plurality of opinions, to set up a space for disagreement and difference, to accept that a neighbor has the freedom to think differently. Better for Islam if intellectual debate rediscovers its rights and adapts itself to the conditions polyphony offers; may the deviations multiply and unanimism cease; may the stable substance of the One disseminate itself in a shower of ungraspable atoms.

As far as external factors are concerned, we may concede that they are not the cause of the disease that gnaws at the body of Islam. But they are certainly the catalyst. Because of them, disease multiplies in intensity. If, by a miracle, they were to disappear, I do not know if the sickness in Islam would disappear too, but it would not find a climate favorable for the flourishing and propagation of its germs. What are these external causes? They are, to list them, the non-recognition of Islam by the West as representing an internal alterity; the way in which Islam is kept in its status of the excluded; the manner in which the West denies its own principles as soon as its interests demand it; and, finally, the habit of the West (and in our days, in the form of America) of exercising its hegemony in total impunity, following the politics of the double standard.

Here, in the old world, without wanting to justify crime, there are many who thought that the attacks on New York and Washington were an answer to an American policy based on partisan power. This opinion seems to shock the Americans themselves, as Robert Malley, former member of President Clinton’s National Security Council,  reminds us:

“… in the Arab countries, in Europe and by a handful of American intellectuals, it was insinuated that American policy was the prime culprit: sanctions and strikes against Iraq, a pro-Israeli stance, the backing of repressive regimes, that is what is understood as explaining the terrorists’ choice of target. The United States as victim of its own policies? This was, understandably — and beyond the logical flaw of the argument — difficult to accept.”

With all due deference to American common sense, I have to begin by confirming that the three reasons specified as hypotheses are exactly those that feed the sickness in Islam and that help in its dissemination. I would also like to know what the “logical flaw” of the argument is supposed to be. And by whom it would be “difficult to accept,” except by the very conceivers and ministers of those policies. Malley’s reservations are nothing more than affirmations that no proof supports. I admit that the argument does not suffice to explain the attacks that brought down the Twin Towers and a large wing of the Pentagon; but it may constitute an a posteriori legitimation. The opinion was not expressed just by Muslims or Arabs, and I heard it proposed by the French and other Europeans. I do not think that it can be reckoned as a basic anti-Americanism (even if such a feeling may be part of it).

If a country, a people, a State wants to remain the leader of the world, it has to be impartial in its manner of governing. To be clear, I would say that the choice lies between an imperialistic policy founded on war and an imperial policy whose main care is to keep the peace. Now, an imperial policy commends its promoter as the arbiter of conflicts flaring up in the world, and by no means to be both judge and litigent. Take for example the successful sequences that buttress one of the last historical manifestations of such an imperial policy, namely what the Ottoman empire knew under great sovereigns like Mehmet Fatih (1451-1481) or Suleiman Kanuni (1520-1566), who saw themselves as continuators of the imperial structure developed along the rim of the Mediterranean since its creation by Alexander, its strengthening by the Romans, its continuation under the Byzantines and its attempted renovation during the Holy Roman Empire. It’s with that mindset that the Ottomans successfully managed the mosaic of conflicts among minorities and nationalities that have always existed in the countries that make up the Near East. Beyond the emotions felt at the moment, there were many who realized that the events of September 11 could constitute a response to a failure of American policies, which have seemed imperialistic rather than imperial in matters concerning Islam in some of its areas or that touch upon one or another of its sensitive symbols.

Who are those who died while spreading death in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania? Beyond their contamination by the sickness in Islam, they are the sons of their times, the pure products of the Americanization of the world: the same ones who turned the digital into child’s play and television into personal memory, without having troubled to transmute the essential archaism of their minds and their souls. Thus the technical and “aesthetic” success of the event. The terrorists used the technical means masterfully, and they accurately thought through the relays of the event’s diffusion as image. In fact, one wonders if the twenty minute delay between the targeting of the towers was not an invitation to the cameras to film “live” the banking turn that the second plane made before hitting its target at the point foreseen for impact. We witnessed the optimum use of today’s means, inviting this quasi-instantaneity between the event and its transmission across all continents. That is one of the effects of the universalization of technique and of the cathodic unification of mankind in the age of the Americanization of the world.

What I insist on, though, is that we witnessed technique rather than science. Since the seventeenth century the Islamic world is no longer a creator of science;  since the middle of the nineteenth century it has tried, without success, to reconnect with the scientific spirit that once upon a time radiated from its cities. But during the post-colonial era (begun in the 1960s and corresponding to the first manifestation of the Americanization of the world arising in the aftermath of the war),  Islam, along some of its fringes, was able to master technique, which implies more a mastering of the functioning of the machine than its invention, or even its production. With technique one is downstream from the scientific process, the initiation of which demands great mastery upstream.

Who are these terrorists but the children of the Americanization of the world (as we have said and as we will repeat)? Children who suffer from the open wound the Muslim subject feels from having been turned from a ruler into someone ruled. Children who refuse the state of submission in which they believe themselves to be, and who dream of restoring the hegemony of the entity to which they belong; of making Friday the universally adopted weekly holiday (rather than Sunday); of substituting the year of the Hegira for the year of the Common Era (whose Christian origin they keep stressing). This is not a caricature. I draw my conclusions from what I happen to have read of the ineptitudes they publish. But let us first see what specific historical process produced them. If indeed they are the result of the considerations that follow, it is important to specify at the outset that no rationale inherited from the past can justify their crime. Further: the process of explanation transcends the specific case of these monstrous figures whose vector is nihilism. The process I am trying to throw light on is meant to identify the anthropological conditions in which these terrorists were born, though these conditions did not by themselves condemn them to be the monsters they became.

[1] Here [translation changed].

[2] Mann, Thomas, The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1961, p. 28.

[3] Robert Malley, “Surpises et paradoxes,” Le Monde, 31 Octobre 2001. (Tr. by PJ & AR).

[4] This concept will be made clear during certain stops that pace the itinerary this text travels. One can measure the universal spread of the American way by reading Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the next Millennium / the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1985-1986, translated by Patrick Creagh (Vintage International 1993). The OuLiPo affiliated writer was amazed in 1959 by many phenomena of daily American life that surprised many other European visitors who crossed the Atlantic, while 40 years later these same phenomena no longer surprise anybody, neither in Europe nor elsewhere, as they have been adopted by everybody.

(to be continued)

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The Malady of Islam

February 13th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists, Translation

Two days ago, this Romanian review (extract below) of my & Charlotte Mandell (under the name Ann Reid)’s 2003 translation of Abdelwahab Meddeb’s The Malady of Islam, published on 2/10/15, came to my attention. Yesterday I had news from the American publisher of the book — which has been out of print for some years now — that they are not interested in bringing out a paperback edition.

This book & its author — my friend Abdelwahab Meddeb, who passed away last November (here) — have been much on my mind these last weeks & months. Whenever reflecting on events — from the Paris Charlie Hebdo assassinations to the Chapel Hill executions, from the Nigerian Boko Haram rampages to the exactions of ISIL — I always come to a point where I wonder how Abdelwahab would have thought about them. I very much miss his presence, his intellectual rigor, his vast knowledge of the various Islamic cultures through history.

It seems to me therefore important that his work on this subject be available to the English-language reader & I have thus decided, in agreement with my co-translator, to serialize The Malady of Islam over the next few weeks on Nomadics, starting Monday.

Abdelwahab Meddeb, The Malady of Islam, trad. din franceză de Pierre Joris și Ann Reid, New York, Basic Books, 2003.


Pe Abdelwahab Meddeb obișnuiam să-l ascult la France Culture, până la moartea lui, survenită în noiembrie 2014. De la microfonul emisiunii „Culture d’Islam” tuna și fulgera (cu multă erudiție, dar și cu eleganță) împotriva islamului fundamentalist, ai cărui promotori, ne spunea vorbitorul, caută să tragă pe linie moartă, ori chiar să anihileze în mod violent, moștenirea culturală a islamului din alte epoci.

A durat o vreme până când am realizat că Meddeb, excelent cunoscător al literaturii arabe și al celei franceze, scrisese el însuși un raft de cărți despre islam. Dată fiind ușurința cu care se mișca pe un teritoriu imens (filozofie, istorie, istoria artei, civilizație și limbă arabă), ar fi trebuit să presupun de la bun început că ocupa un post la o universitate din Franța.

Una dintre numeroasele lui cărți, La Maladie de l’Islam (2002), reprezintă o interogație lucidă asupra islamului politic, animat de ambiții politice enorme și otrăvit de uriașe resentimente față de Occident. Am frunzărit de curând, în fugă, versiunea în engleză a cărții, pe care o socotesc o lectură importantă pentru oricine dorește să înțeleagă geneza islamului fundamentalist a cărui spectru bântuie astăzi o bună parte a lumii musulmane.

Ținta predilectă a criticilor lui Meddeb este wahhabismul, ideologie islamică fondată de Mohamed Ibn ’Abd Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), a cărui cea mai cunoscută carte este Kitab at-Tawhid („Cartea unicității lui Dumnezeu”). În adoptarea de către tribul Saud a ideologiei elaborate de Al-Wahhab, autorul cărții vede sursa evoluției Arabiei Saudite din următoarele două secole. Interesant este că această evoluție n-a scăpat atenției unui personaj eminamente postreligios, marchizul de Sade, care în plină epocă iluministă nota că în Arabia a apărut un lider religios care încearcă purificarea religiei lui Mahomet.


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All-American Fascist Terror in Action

February 12th, 2015 · Uncategorized



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Aldon Nielsen on Amiri Baraka’s SOS (Poems 1961-2013)

February 11th, 2015 · Book Review, Poetics, Poetry, Review

As I put it on Face Book a week or so ago when Aldon Nielsen’s review of SOS (Poems 1961-2013) came out: “An excellent corrective to the ignorant NYT put-down piece of a week ago. Aldon Nielsen knows exactly what he is speaking of, i.e. knows in detail the incredible width & depth of Amiri Baraka’s oeuvre — one of the major literary achievements of the second part of the 20C, not on a purely North American but on a world-wide scale.” Below the opening paras of the review, & a link to get you to the complete piece.

Save Our Stanzas – Selecting Amiri Baraka

by Aldon Lynn Nielsen

For many years I have complained loudly and often about the lack of a readily available major gathering of Amiri Baraka’s poetry. It would be hard to think of another late career poet of his importance who was not the subject of aCollected as well as a Selected. (TheComplete generally awaits the poet’s demise — but even then . . .. Recollect that one of Frank O’Hara’s friends asked, following the publication of both theCollected and Poems Retrieved, whether a Complete was even a possible thing. Looking at the masses of Baraka’s work, I have often wondered the same thing.)

Long out of print, the Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, published in 1979, was advertised as “containing those poems which the author most wants to preserve,” and that has long been the most substantial collection of Baraka’s verse we had – 339 pages running fromPreface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note through to Poetry for the Advanced. (This was the only volume in which many of us could find that second collection from Baraka’s Marxist epoch.) There was no editor named in the book, so one assumes the selections are indeed Baraka’s own.

A quarter century on, Marsilio publishedTransbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995, edited by Paul Vangelisti in consultation with the poet. I loved the cover of that book the minute I saw it, and began reading with the highest hopes, but I was already concerned just picking up the volume. The 1979 Selected ran to 339 pages; the 1995 Transbluesency, taking in decades more work to choose from, was 271 pages long.


(ctd here)


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Remembering Assia Djebar

February 8th, 2015 · Uncategorized



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Assia Djebar (1936-2015)

February 7th, 2015 · Algeria, Maghrebi Literature, Obituaries, Uncategorized

djebarVery sad to learn of Assia Djebar‘s passing: she was an amazing woman & a superb writer! Her novel Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade can stand with Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma as foundational text for Algerian post-colonial literature. In Poems for the Millennium vol.4 I published some of her work, including a poem I reprinted here on Nomadics a while back (“Poems for a Happy Algeria”). Below, a first obit by mlynxqualey via Arabic Literature(in English):

Algerian novelist Assia Djebar — frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender and one of the “immortals” of the Académie Française — died in a hospital in Paris:

According to Algerian state radio, Djebar — whose given name was Fatima Zohra Imalayène — will be buried in her native Cherchell, where she was born in 1936.

Djebar wrote novels and short-story collections striking for their wide historical sense and their female focus. They included: The Thirst, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, A Sister to Scheherazade, So Vast a Prison, Algerian White, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment and The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. She also wrote poetry.

She moved to France to study at 18 and began her life as a bearer of many “firsts” when she became the first Algerian woman to be admitted to the country’s top literary university, the Ecole Normale Superieure. She published her first book in 1957, at just twenty-one.

Dejbar, like many Algerian authors, was criticized for continuing to write in French after her nation’s independence.  Although she never wrote in Arabic, she did study the language, and attempted to use French to “reproduce Arabic rhythms.”

In a 2010 interview, Djebar said that she writes “against erasure”:

In some of my earlier books (So Vast the Prison, Algerian White, etc..) memory was often the first impulse to write, or rather the sudden urgent need to record the spontaneous testimony of someone close … Because a sudden fear seized me of seeing this shard of life, this moment of real life – with its grace, or the hollow of despair in an anonymous story, yes, sometimes fear grips me that these fragile moments of life will fade away. It seems that I write against erasure. Most often, in this flow of a past life, of desperate or brilliant experience, illuminating, a spark, shy at first, then hardened obstinacy makes me say: “this must be fixed, this should not plunge into the night, into oblivion or colorless indifference! This need to inscribe: at least it doesn´t matter if it’s me who takes the pen, or some other suddenly arising to whom I could pass the lightning glimpse (pain, rebellion, or short joy) …

She won a number of other prestigious prizes for her writing and cinema including the International Critics’ Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1979, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1996, sometimes called the “American Nobel,” and the Frankfurt Peace Prize in 2000.

In 2005, Assia Djebar became the first woman from the Maghreb to become an “immortal” — or life-long member of the prestigious Académie Française.

Works available online:

L’Amour, la fantasia — Excerpt of the novel in English translation

Algerian White — Excerpt of the novel in English translation

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment

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Klossowski & René, Buck & Petit

February 6th, 2015 · Book Launch, Translation, Uncategorized

Vauxhall&Company publications

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‘Dictionary of the Revolution': Defining Words in Flux

February 5th, 2015 · Uncategorized

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On January 31st, A Dictionary of the Revolution launched a kickstarter to boost the project toward its final phase:


This fund-raising campaign is focused on building the dictionary a digital text and sound archive for the material that Amira Hanafi and her team have collected in the past year. Through one-on-one interviews, leaping off from particular hot-button words, “A Dictionary of the Revolution makes space for viewpoints that are no longer represented in the media or in the Egyptian public. The book and archive preserve the memory of a moment in Egyptian history when many voices could be heard.”

Open to the public, Hanafi writes, the Dictionary archive “could be used for research, as the basis for other projects, or just exist for posterity: so we don’t forget the uprising in Egypt as time passes and things change.”

The campaign’s minimum goal is $2,500, and it’s already more than halfway there.

Dictionarist and poet Amira Hanafi answered questions about the project as it stands now.

ArabLit: Many folks’ definitions must have changed since you started. Will your dictionary add in a time element, somehow move through time? Or is it a fixed glimpse at a dialouge in 2014?

Amira Hanafi: All of the interviews in the current collection were conducted in 2014; in that sense it is a snapshot of dialogue in that year. However, I wouldn’t say that the collection represents a fixed view. Change in Egypt has been rapid. Throughout the year, I noted both subtle and conspicuous shifts in dialogue. For instance, a number of people chose to talk about the word intakhabat (elections) in interviews leading up to the presidential elections in May. Some talked about what they expected to see: namely, a large voter turnout. When that didn’t happen, people’s idea of elections changed again, and that’s represented in the collection.

Alongside my project to compose a book from this collection of material, I’d like to build a more interactive website for the archive that would allow for people to add definitions over time. Online — as opposed to in print — the archive could transform over a longer period of time and come to represent a larger number of views. Producing an interactive archive depends on the results of my current crowdfunding campaign.

AL: Now, four years after 2011, there is a bit of fatigue with serious political discussion. Was there any point at which you wondered, “Agh, what have I gotten myself into?”

AH: I had a few people refuse to participate in interviews while saying something like, “I don’t want to think about those things anymore.” Those were the worst moments in the process for me, because I think of silence as a risky space. When someone says, “the revolution is over,” I think that it is over for them because they’ve resigned from the public conversations that are a significant site of change.

Truly, I feel quite privileged to have had reason to spend much of my time over the last year listening to people talk about the language of the revolution, which has, for me, kept the uprising of consciousness alive.

AL: How did you find your interviewees, and make sure you were getting a real cross-section and not just friends of friends?

AH: In my personal life, I’ve sometimes been asked to comment on current events “as an Arab,” “as a female, or “as a Muslim.” I don’t think I’m alone in finding it maddening to be asked speak on behalf of a social group with whom I am perceived to share a certain characteristic. When I’m part of a human conversation, I express my own views. They shouldn’t be taken as representative of any portion of the population.

For this project, I made efforts to reach as diverse a group of people as I could — my team and I have talked to almost 200 people, including adults and children, men and women, poor and wealthy, in several parts of the country. What I mean to do with this material is fabricate a dialogue from diverse perspectives, in which each voice is unique. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Egyptians of such a class, such a gender, and living in such place believe one thing, and Egyptians of another class, gender, or location believe another. My research substantiates that.

I’m not working with a statistical methodology or attempting to conduct academic research. Neither am I journalist or an ethnographer. Although I may be informed by these methods, I am at the end of the day an artist working with discursive conversations that are not quantifiable. I aim for the book I compose to contain a compelling conversation that represents some of the idiosyncrasies of Egyptian voices, and tell the story of the last several years from a multitude of perspectives. It is literature.

AL: Have your own definitions changed through the last year?

AH: Yes, and they keep changing as I listen. Personally, I found the discussion of “social justice” to be quite compelling, as the concept has a long history in contemporary Egypt. People of all walks of life shared informed opinions, something I’m not sure I would find in other countries. Another word that keeps changing for me is “revolution.” A number of times, I’ve called into question the title of the project, but it’s still the best I can manage.  I don’t really know what to call it that wouldn’t be quite cumbersome: perhaps, “A Dictionary of Disputed Events in Egypt from 2011-2014.”

AL: What will you be looking for when you go through the transcripts? What will make the cut?

AH: I’m very much a process-based artist. First, I created a system for conducting research. In the early days of research, we moved quite slowly, returning to and revising the system as we went along. Later, we were able to move faster. The research process then informed a system for reviewing the material. I can’t say now, in the middle of reviewing the material, what will be included in the book. That’s a question I’ll have an answer to once I have the complete, edited collection organized in such a way that I can listen to all of the definitions for a single word in one go. The experience of listening is what will inform what goes into each entry in the Dictionary.

AL: How do you imagine the life-span of this project? Being part of a dialogue in the moment, or having something to say about Egypt, about words, about political and social aspirations, for a wide audience?

AH: I think what has motivated me most to do this project is what generally motivates me as an artist: an urge to put my skills to use to document and interpret my social and political context. I’m too familiar with what social and political activists do with their time to call myself one, although I very much respect the organizing work they do on a grassroots level. In fact, I am an artist, and what I know how to do is interpret information. I imagine the book to exist as both a documentation of this very significant time in Egypt and as an aesthetic interpretation of a public conversation that included so many people in a unique moment in time, .

AL: Will you be translating it into English?

AH: Yes, but that will now be the last step in the process. I’ll compose the book in Arabic first and publish it in Egypt. Afterwards, I’ll compose an English version of the book. This work is not only translation; it is also adaptation, for an audience for whom the context of the revolution and its specific events are less familiar. Thus, the book might require different structure, might include different voices from the collection, and will require conscientious translation to approximate the original Egyptian popular colloquial.

AL: What will the fund-raising support?

AH: Because I initially expected the timeframe of the project to be much shorter, I urgently need funds to complete the review of the material. I also need additional funds to transcribe all of the individual word libraries (rather than only the selections that make it into the book). If the minimum crowdfunding goal is reached, I’ll be able to make the complete archive available to the public.

I’ve also set other goals for the crowdfunding that would support a sound archive, and a website that will allow the archive to grow over a few years through public interaction.

Find out more about the project here.

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Eight Years Later, Mutanabbi Street

February 1st, 2015 · Books, Iraq, Poetry readings

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The battle over memories and representations of Iraq in US discourse rages, not just writ large, as in the discussions over American Sniper, but also in individual spaces, like Baghdad’s central bookselling corridor: 

mutanabbi1_274x228In the American news, the usual way of remembering/forgetting the bombing that rocked Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street in 2007 seems to be ever-present feature stories about the street’s “resurrection”: January 2009 in USA Today, April 2011 by Reuters, March 2012 from AFP, November 2014from McClatchy, January 2015 from The Week, as well as others. The up-from-the-ashes metaphor usually hides more than it reveals: What has happened here? What connects (and disconnects) the US and Iraq?

A dedicated group of academics and artists, for the eighth year running, insist on holding on up a light and visiting Mutanabbi Street in a more intimate and complicated way.

Across the US, the UK, and beyond, “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” founder Beau Beausoleil — who also co-edited a book and curated an art installation of the same title — joins other Mutanabbi project stalwarts in continuing to forge connections through art and poetry. This year’s readings are set for on or about March 5, eight years after the bombing that devastated the bookselling street, a loss eloquently described by Anthony Shadid.

Why al-Mutanabbi Street? Why not imagine our way to Abu Ghraib, the invasion, the Gulf War, the blockade, earlier imperial maneuverings?

Beausoleil earlier said via email:

The emotional enormity of the invasion and occupation of Iraq is enough to completely freeze one up. Where does one start? How do you organize a list of horrible events so that they are addressed but not compared and contrasted as to their importance?

I feel one must simply pick something. You must find a moment that you can step into, one that resonates with who you are in your everyday life. That moment for me was the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street because, as a bookseller and poet, I knew that al-Mutanabbi Street would be where my used bookshop would be, and that as a poet this would be my cultural community that was attacked.

Looking closely at any such small but devastating moment — in the context of a brutal occupation that lasted more than eight years — reveals the layers of the war as it was laid down year after year. The entire war is in this one day, in both its complexity and clarity. Positioning the project as ‘anti-war’ would, I feel, make it too easy to dismiss and brush aside.

Imperialism is wide and sweeping but responses need to be focused and direct.

Eight years on, the lives of Iraqis and North Americans remain deeply intertwined, and eight years on, we have just as much trouble placing our ear to the wall and hearing Iraqi voices, particularly over the clamor of our own soldier literature.

The Mutanabbi Street readings, as Beausoleil emphasizes, are not moments of “healing,” nor a time to hear US veterans’ voices, but a time to listen through to Iraqi voices and real grappling with Iraqi lives. The readings this year are dedicated to the women of Iraq.

This year, Beausoleil says that he likes “the addition of the small intimate readings and the fact that some people are pausing in their routine/travels to mark the day by reading something for al-Mutanabbi Street to whomever they are with.”

Thus far, there are events scheduled for the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. , San Francisco, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the Book Arts Association of Newfoundland and Labrador & Eastern Gallery in St. John’s, The Great Overland Book Company, The Institute Library inNew Haven, Connecticut, the University of Queensland, Australia, Portland State University, Smith Memorial Student Union, Antwerp, the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, Exeter, and elsewhere.

For anyone else who would like to do a reading, Beausoleil asks that they follow some general guidelines that he would send them.

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