Self-Portrait, for Banipal journal, n° 56


Born in Aden on the 15th of August, 1956, into a family enamoured of literature, I first developed a preference for poetry, which I have composed since my youth. When I was fourteen, I published my first poem in “al-Hikma,” the most important Yemeni literary journal back then, and in this way attained four-fifths of my life’s happiness.
Unfortunately, when I was young I also loved mathematics and the sciences. This was in general not negative but in three particular respects proved problematic:
1) I advanced quickly enough through my years of study to complete my Thanaweya
Amma (General Secondary Education Certificate) before the beginning of the Military Service Law in South Yemen. For this reason, after secondary school I performed my national service as a math teacher for ninth grade students in the Sheikh Othman Middle School in Aden.
2) In 1976 I travelled to France to study electrical engineering. Once I arrived there, I switched to applied mathematics, although I was virtually untrained in it because at that time modern mathematics was not taught in Aden, whereas in France middle and secondary school students were taught nothing else. That was followed by a specialization in Computer Science.
3) After defending my doctoral dissertation in 1987 and then my post-doctoral thesis in 1991, I became a university professor in 1992, when I was thirty-six. At that time I began to organize my time according to my wishes and dedicated some of it, finally, to returning to my fond, deep-rooted passion for literature. Because I was preoccupied exclusively with scientific learning and research from 1976 to 1992, I was forced to leave off the pursuit of literary composition—except for writing the occasional poem.
I did not, however, stop reading French literature and philosophy from the time I became proficient in French–after arriving in France without knowing a word of French.
Since 1992 I have organized my time according to this Qur’anic verse: “The male has a share comparable to that of two females.”[1] The gender of the following terms in Arabic is masculine: scientific research, teaching, and the computer; the Arabic words for the novel and writing are feminine.
For approximately the next five years, until I retire, I also plan to devote two thirds of my time to scientific endeavours and one third to literary ones. Once I retire, I hope to reverse the phrase, in a laudable way, to read: “The female has a share comparable to two males.”
After 1992 I began my literary effort by writing a novel in French: La reine étripée (“The Duped Queen” or “al-Malika al-Maghdura”). Professor Ali Muhammad Zayd translated it to Arabic, and its third edition will appear this summer (2016) from Dar Al Saqi. That was followed by seven novels in Arabic. The first was a trilogy: Damlan (Dar Al Adab), which was shortlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award).
In the middle of these seven volumes is Taqrir al-Hudhud (Dar Al Adab, “The Hoopoe’s Report”). The hero of this novel is Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri. (A translated chapter of it appears in this issue of Banipal.)
The penultimate one is Ibnat Suslof (Dar Al Saqi, longlisted for the Arabic Booker Price for 2014). It has been translated to French (forthcoming from Actes Sud, translated by Professor Hana Jaber) and to English (forthcoming from Darf Publishing, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette as Suslov’s Daughter).
The most recent is Hafid Sinbad (“Sindbad’s Scion,” Dar Al Saqi), which the publisher nominated for the Arabic Booker Prize for 2016.
In addition to these novels, I have also published a poetry collection, a collection of short stories, and two books of philosophy. The second of these is La Imama Siwa al-‘Aql (“The Intellect is the Only Imam,” (Riad El-Rayyes Books).
I diligently continue to pursue my literary activities. One of these, since September 2014, has been writing a cultural column for the Culture Supplement of al-Arabi al-Jadid. I have also written several articles for the French papers Le Monde and Libération.
I have directed a university research team as well as projects in which numerous university teams participate. I have written more than one hundred research articles in journals and for international, peer-reviewed, specialist conferences. I have published several scientific books in English and in French.
Which Authors and Writers Do I Like?
There are some essential books that changed my life, and I have been indebted to them and their authors all my life. For authors who are still alive, I practice a strange, quasi-religious ritual. I rush to buy their books the day they are released–no matter what my work schedule is—even if I know I will not read them for weeks.
Moreover, I am an enthusiastic fan of the theatre. For the last ten years, for example, I have regularly attended, the annual Theatre Festival of Avignon, for two or three weeks, seeing on average two or three cultural performances a day.
I leave here only a few sample names of the writers and thinkers I was asked to discuss in this self-portrait: Nietzsche, Homer, Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri, Rimbaud, Philippe Sollers, Amin Maalouf, Jean d’Ormesson, Michel Houellebecq, Steven Pinker, Pascal Boyer . . . .
What Does Literature Mean to Me?
Literature is our most important offspring and distinguishes our biological species from all the others through its abstract language and art. The habitat where it flourishes and acts is not just reality but also the imagination—which is the master of man’s talents.
Unlike the rest of man’s intellectual activities, which delve vertically into some specified field like physics, geology, history, psychology, etc., literature is a horizontal journey that probes the depths of each life and of human endeavours.
It can be a means of artistic expression for history, science, political science, and for anything that interests a person–or does not. For this reason, it is the wellspring of man’s creativity in its richest dimensions.
Over and beyond this and that, however, literature–and especially the novel–is the adventure of the human self and expands human life by adding to it sentiments, dreams, sufferings, and new hopes, new passion, rejection, screams, and adventures of traveling through space and time.
In brief, the novel adds new lives—in other words new “Preserved Tablets”!
The novel is thus an imitation of the divine project of writing the “Preserved Tablet” that–according to the religious point of view—God wrote and that narrated in advance every process of human life, which purposefully realizes and embodies lines from this Tablet—just as a film brings the director’s scenario to the screen!
Thus the novel is divinity squared or cubed, because this man–who is said to have devised the gods according to his nature and with limitless, massive powers that exceed him in all directions–granted gods the gift of writing the first novel in the history of existence: the “Preserved Tablet”. Then he granted himself the art of the novel–the gift of writing little preserved tablets, according to most dominant and brilliant creatures of his amazing imagination!
How Shall I Conclude This Self-Portrait?
With the most important and most beautiful aspect of my life: Natalie, my wife, and our daughters: Clémentine and Ambrine! My wife is a distinguished university professor, who heads a section. She is my eternal, everlasting angel and a torch that lights all of existence. I met her the first week of my first university year, and we have never parted. Had it not been for our mutual support and for the music of our life together, I would not have advanced a single step; perhaps she feels the same way.
Our older daughter, who is twenty-five, after finishing her university studies in one of the elite schools (Henri-IV, HEC), is currently working in Vietnam. Our younger daughter is on her way to Colombia as part of her university training in the fine arts.
I have suddenly recalled—I don’t know why—a simple party song that we four sang together in unison in 2004 with juvenile innocence and gaiety. Its echoes still fill the sky of South Africa (one of approximately fifty countries the four of us have visited together) while our automobile was traversing the plains, mountains, and coasts of that vast, enchanting country in every direction: “Live is life, Na Na Na Na Na.”
Translated by William M. Hutchins
[1] Qur’an, “al-Nisa’ (The Women) 4:11