Postcolonial Fiction and Sacred Scripture: Rewriting the Divine? 9781907975813

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Postcolonial Fiction and Sacred Scripture: Rewriting the Divine?

Table of contents :
Half Title
1 Body, Text, Excess
2 Withdrawn Divine I: The Blank Book in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s L’Enfant de sable and Amin Maalouf ’s Le Périple de Baldassare
3 Withdrawn Divine II: Vanishing Bodies and Empty Space in Georges Perec’s La Disparition and Assia Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française
4 Divine Senses of Place: Mecca versus Madina

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Postcolonial Fiction and Sacred Scripture Rewriting the Divine?

legenDa legenda , founded in 1995 by the european Humanities Research Centre of the University of Oxford, is now a joint imprint of the Modern Humanities Research association and Routledge. Titles range from medieval texts to contemporary cinema and form a widely comparative view of the modern humanities, including works on arabic, Catalan, english, French, german, greek, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish literature. an editorial Board of distinguished academic specialists works in collaboration with leading scholarly bodies such as the Society for French Studies, the British Comparative literature association and the association of Hispanists of great Britain & Ireland.

The Modern Humanities Research Association ( ) encourages and promotes advanced study and research in the field of the modern humanities, especially modern European languages and literature, including English, and also cinema. It also aims to break down the barriers between scholars working in different disciplines and to maintain the unity of humanistic scholarship in the face of increasing specialization. The Association fulfils this purpose primarily through the publication of journals, bibliographies, monographs and other aids to research.

Routledge is a global publisher of academic books, journals and online resources in the humanities and social sciences. Founded in 1836, it has published many of the greatest thinkers and scholars of the last hundred years, including adorno, einstein, Russell, Popper, Wittgenstein, Jung, Bohm, Hayek, Mcluhan, Marcuse and Sartre. Today Routledge is one of the world’s leading academic publishers in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It publishes thousands of books and journals each year, serving scholars, instructors, and professional communities worldwide.

Editorial Board Chairman Professor Colin Davis, Royal Holloway, University of London Professor Malcolm Cook, University of Exeter (French) Professor Robin Fiddian, Wadham College, Oxford (Spanish) Professor Anne Fuchs, University of Warwick (German) Professor Paul Garner, University of Leeds (Spanish) Professor Andrew Hadfield, University of Sussex (English) Professor Marian Hobson Jeanneret, Queen Mary University of London (French) Professor Catriona Kelly, New College, Oxford (Russian) Professor Martin McLaughlin, Magdalen College, Oxford (Italian) Professor Martin Maiden, Trinity College, Oxford (Linguistics) Professor Peter Matthews, St John’s College, Cambridge (Linguistics) Dr Stephen Parkinson, Linacre College, Oxford (Portuguese) Professor Suzanne Raitt, William and Mary College, Virginia (English) Professor Ritchie Robertson, The Queen’s College, Oxford (German) Professor David Shepherd, Keele University (Russian) Professor Michael Sheringham, All Souls College, Oxford (French) Professor Alison Sinclair, Clare College, Cambridge (Spanish) Professor David Treece, King’s College London (Portuguese) Managing Editor Dr Graham Nelson 41 Wellington Square, Oxford ox1 2jf, UK

Postcolonial Fiction and Sacred Scripture Rewriting the Divine? ❖ Sura Qadiri

Modern Humanities Research Association and Routledge 2014

First published 2014 Published by the Modern Humanities Research Association and Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA

LEGENDA is an imprint of the Modern Humanities Research Association and Routledge Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

© Modern Humanities Research Association and Taylor & Francis 2014 ISBN 978-1-907975-81-3 (hbk) All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, including photocopying, recordings, fax or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner and the publisher. Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe.

Contents ❖



ix 1

1 Body, Text, Excess


2 Withdrawn Divine I: The Blank Book in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s L’Enfant de sable and Amin Maalouf ’s Le Périple de Baldassare


3 Withdrawn Divine II: Vanishing Bodies and Empty Space in Georges Perec’s La Disparition and Assia Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française


4 Divine Senses of Place: Mecca versus Madina








For Mum, Dad and Omar with love


I would like to give special thanks to Ian James for supervising the project on which this book is based, and for his continuing support. Thanks also to my examiners Emma Wilson and Patrick Ffrench for their constructive comments and suggestions. I am very grateful to Nicholas Harrison and Jane Hiddleston for reading and commenting on parts of the manuscript, and to Martin Crowley, who commented on Chapter 3 in its very early stages. Thanks also to Berghahn Journals for allowing me to reproduce extracts from ‘Abdelwahab Meddeb: A Literary Path towards Islamic Atheism?’, Journal of Romance Studies, 13:1 (2013), 49–64 which appear in Chapters 1 and 4, and in the Introduction and Conclusion. I would like to express my appreciation to Graham Nelson and Nigel Hope at Legenda for all their support and advice. I am grateful to the translators of many of the works cited. Where no English edition is credited, translations are my own. Finally, thanks Omar for all the support, moral and material. s.q., London, February 2014

Introduction v

In 1994, French-Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama published his essay Une Fiction troublante, which sought to examine the Muslim backlash against Salman Rushdie following his publication of The Satanic Verses. A section of Rushdie’s novel dwells on the possibility that verses inspired by Satan may have accidentally crept in among the divinely inspired verses of the Quran. This is based on a claim that such an event did take place at the time of Quranic revelation, with the Prophet transmitting verses that were then retracted on account of their inauthenticity. The narrative is one that has been debated and discredited within the mainstream canon of Islamic history.1 Rushdie lays claim to his right here to be inspired by it as a novelist and to appropriate it as part of the realm of the imaginary, to which it has been cast out by the official annals of the history of the sacred. Benslama makes the case that it is not merely the inf lammatory subject matter of the novel that caused the greatest offence amongst Muslims, but that deep down it was the very literary form in which the story was depicted that was most unsettling. He writes: Le texte ne propose en apparence aucune construction en restauration de l’origine commune, ne dit aucun commencement que le sien, aucune fin que la sienne et fait le pari que la parole est possible sans commencement et sans fin outre ceux qu’elle construit elle-même. C’est le scandale d’une parole qui devient l’ennemi déclaré du commun.2 [The text does not seemingly offer any reference to a common origin, does not announce any beginning besides its own, nor any end beyond itself, and dares to suggest that discourse is possible without a beginning or an end besides those it creates itself. It is the scandal of an utterance that becomes the declared enemy of the collective.]

The very nature of the text as fictional, self-referential, detached from, and unaccountable to the official discourses that traditionally deal with the religious themes to which Rushdie gestures poses a threat to the authenticity attributed to sacred scripture. Benslama concludes that the most troubling aspect of narrative fiction is its structural resemblance to narratives within sacred books like the Quran. This threatens to reduce scriptural narratives to a set of fictional narratives among many others, thus undermining their claims to authority and veracity. Rushdie himself defends his book by highlighting its fictional status. He asserts that it is not ‘only a novel’,3 in the sense that it ‘thus need not be taken seriously’,4 but that the novel, as its name suggests, allows its reader to ‘see the world anew’.5 Rushdie would like his book to be read as ‘a work of radical dissent and questioning and reimagining’,6 thus suggesting that fiction creates a textual opportunity for reassessing issues borrowed from other forms of narrative. Rushdie



stops short in his essay of elaborating what the consequences of such ‘reimagi­ ning’ should be, particularly for a community with a more traditional approach to sacred narrative. This book explores the relationship between literary fiction and sacred scripture as it is presented (both consciously and more implicitly) in contemporary works of fiction and thought, chief ly but not exclusively by writers from North Africa and the Middle East. It presents a range of positions that vary from a very latent (and sometimes inadvertent) engagement with the divine to a very explicit upholding of a sense of dichotomy between literary text and sacred scripture. In the latter case, writers propose literature as an antidote to religious practices thought to be socially and politically problematical, and to posit literature as a destabilizing force when it comes to established religious narrative. In other cases, there is an engagement with an idea of the divine that is not informed by the monotheistic qualifications of God. These express a desire to explore personalized encounters and relationships with some form of the divine, particularly in areas where a more canonical idea of God forms part of collective consciousness and public identity. Whether literature is being used to open up the narratives that constitute sacred scripture, or whether it attempts to explore notions of the divine that lay aside scriptural teachings, it becomes a textual means of supplementing or exploring further the ideas and motifs put forward by sacred text. And in the most extreme cases, literature is put forward as an anti-doctrinal manifesto that can change the religious beliefs and habits of a community. Such a position is built on the idea that the subversive potential of literature stems from an inherently anti-doctrinal quality. This is an assumption that I will question, suggesting that it is based on very specific use being made of very specific notions of the literary. Fiction: A Challenge to Sacred Scripture? Contemporary North African and Middle Eastern literature very commonly critically depicts social structures that base themselves on religious teachings as well as political positions that draw on religious texts. This is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to francophone literatures associated with the Arab world. Indeed, Egyptian religious reformer Muhammad Haikal’s novel Zaynab, published in 1910 and a contender for the accolade of first novel published in Arabic, followed his socially reformist agenda. It tells the story of a young woman in an Egyptian village who dies of a broken heart after she is forced to marry a man other than her childhood sweetheart. Haikal’s aim was to distance the practice of arranging marriages from religious doctrine, and to suggest that choosing one’s own spouse is neither improper (since Zaynab’s love remains chaste) nor impious. Published in the 1950s, Naghib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy features examples of middle-class religious hypocrisy as part of its mimetic project. Yet beyond thematics, this study charts a growing understanding and promotion of the literary genre amongst some francophone writers from North Africa and the Middle East as a threat to established interpretations of monotheistic discourse. This comes from a particular understanding of literature as distinctive from other forms of discourse, not complying with the rules that govern these, as in the case of Benslama. Literature,



according to certain definitions, does not have to conform to the conditions of veracity, accuracy, and consistency that are incumbent on legal, historic, theological, or political discourses. Nicholas Harrison asserts that: To read a literary text as such is to accept that whatever representations it offers need not be truthful, or need not be truthful at every point. When the text asserts convincingly that it is truthful or factual, that assertion may legitimately be part of its literariness or fictionality. This seems to me a fundamental distinction between literary and non-literary genres.7

Literature is thus not to be mined for factual information or uncomplicated social or political messages, even where it seems to invite its readers to do so. It calls for more nuanced modes of reading. The subversive potential of literature lies in this unique discursive quality. Michael Riffaterre writes: Literature alone among all the discourses can contain and emulate everything else, including other discourse. The very complementarity of being and repre­ senting makes it quite urgent that literature remain central to discourse, culture, ideology, and so on because literature encompasses all of them and raises questions about all of them.8

Literature for Riffaterre highlights the limits of other forms of discourse and serves to open these up to questioning. Similarly, citing Deepika Bahri, Chris Bongie speaks of literature’s ‘ “excessive” relation to the factual record’, as well as ‘its potential for “political evasion, even ideological capitulation” ’.9 The idea of literature as ‘excessive’ reinforces its externality to other forms of discourse. Literature is thus a maverick genre that permits itself to emulate or appropriate any aspect of any other discourse, without committing itself to the discursive formalities that govern it. The primary aim of this book is to explore the implications of coupling such a notion of literature, which poses a challenge to established ideas and modes of discourse by its excessive nature, with textually inscribed religious doctrine and religiously inspired discourses from the Muslim world. Before I continue, it is important to make clear how I define the terms ‘literature’, ‘literary space’, ‘sacred scripture’, and ‘monotheistic discourse’. The first term will be used here to refer in the broadest possible sense to literary fiction (I will be looking at prose fiction in particular, as opposed to poetry and theatre). I use the notion of literary or textual ‘space’ where I wish to reinforce a sense of discursive migration when religious narratives and other religious material feature in a work of literature. ‘Sacred scripture’ indicates the holy book of a religion (e.g. Bible or Quran). ‘Monotheistic discourse’ will be used to refer to all the formal discursive elements of the religious paradigm. In the case of Islam, these include the Quran, the various collections of prophetic traditions known as the hadith, as well as all manner of canonical exegetical commentary. Where the text refers specifically to one of the discursive strands, this will be made clear. In addition, I replace the term ‘God’ with ‘the divine’ where I perceive an exploration of the idea of God that is removed from scriptural teaching about him. The term is intended as a more neutral form. My focus here will be the effects of wilfully designating literature as an extracanonical textual space for discussing, mimicking, reproducing, reinterpreting, or reimagining aspects and features of religious discourse, sometimes openly and



sometimes implicitly. I will suggest that the act of transposing elements of religious discourse to the sphere of the literary is believed by some writers, such as Rushdie, to challenge the totalitarian discursive structure of monotheism (the belief in a God whose nature is qualified in his holy book, along with the social and religious laws by which such a God wishes his followers to live). By overlooking the chain of logic that holds these strands of monotheistic discourse together, literature undoes the bonds between them, selectively echoing, examining, fictionalizing, and metaphorizing some parts whilst disregarding others. Citing Richard Rorty, Bruce Robbins makes an explicit connection between the externality of literature to other forms of discourse and its strong potential as a secular space: Literature can serve Rorty as an antidote to any nonhuman authority, whether that authority is expressly theological or not, because it rejects the vocabulary of value and in so doing refuses to speak in the name of any capital T Truth, any ultimate set of norms or purposes, any authority higher than what people in the present can be induced to enjoy or see the point in discussing further. The paradoxical but well-established tradition by which the value of literature is grounded in its intrinsic antipathy to common denominators — in short, in its aversion to value talk — allows Rorty to understand literature as undogmatic in its very essence.10

Literature here is presented as anti-prescriptive and anti-totalitarian. It challenges the literal, transforming all that is positively affirmed within monotheistic discourse into metaphor, into something that cannot be taken at face value. Familiar elements of the discourse become endowed with new and unfamiliar meanings. What emerges when monotheistic discourse encounters literature may be termed a vestigial monotheism, one that bears echoes of the original, without maintaining any of its originary functions. The notion of ‘vestige’ appears in Robbins’s very characterization of the secular. He asserts that ‘no version of secularism can be entirely free from every theological vestige carried forward by the language we use’.11 Robbins’s comment suggests a sense of resignation to the inevitability of the presence of the theological in secular discourse. Far from finding this vestige intrusive or undesirable, I will suggest here that it is embraced by certain writers from North Africa as evidence that literary language is capable of creating new uses for the theological. Religious narratives and imagery are redirected as opposed to suppressed, allowing for a sense of connection with religious heritage that does not involve adhering to its teachings. Literature becomes a means of breaking down the discursive monotheistic paradigm, thereby distancing the concept of the divine from the affirmative discourse that upholds it. God is presented in monotheistic discourse as its lynchpin. Monotheistic discourse qualifies God, listing his attributes, whilst God is presented as the reason for all prescriptive elements of the discourse. For example, divine law must be followed, because an all-knowing, all-seeing creator would know what best suits creation, and also because he would know if his law were to be f louted. The concept of divine law does not work without a qualified understanding of the divine (as all-seeing, all-knowing creator, for example) whilst the divine, without being qualified in sacred scripture, represents only an indeterminate excess that cannot be made a part of any logical paradigm.



Indeed, this study will show that, for some writers, the discursively excessive nature of literature makes it the best textual means of articulating any sense of the divine. This is made explicit in the work of Meddeb and Benslama. Such writers make the case that, in transcribing divinity and attempting to communicate it in logical and determinate terms, sacred scripture and other forms of monotheistic discourse reductively undermine its excessiveness, which can only be maintained through insisting on its distance and aloofness. Literature, in very personal terms, can express an intuitive sense of encounter with the divine, but this can never lead to an absolute understanding of it or to any universal systems of worship. For such writers, this potentially puts literature on a competitive footing with sacred scripture as a textual space for expressing the divine. Thus the effect of transposing aspects of sacred scripture into literary space, such that notions of the divine become separated from sacred scripture, is twofold. Prescriptive elements of sacred scripture are socially and politically neutralized, living on in various guises as a form of literary inspiration. Secondly, the divine is withdrawn from language, and reduced to a position of silence and inexpressibility. This, I will suggest, is conveyed through the literary motifs of blankness, absence, and void. In this way, literary interactions with sacred scripture seem to usher in a post-monotheistic disavowal of monotheism. Monotheistic traditions are dismantled on their own terms, their narratives, images, and vocabularies redirected into the literary, transformed from the literal into the allegorical. Literature continues, however, to reserve a space for the divine, suggesting a dimension beyond the palpable. Monotheism thus lives on as a trace or a vestige of itself. In addition, it also offers a reinterpretation of prescriptive elements of religious discourse, allegorizing or eclipsing that which has been understood as literal injunction. The result is a connection with religious heritage that does not involve an adherence to the core tenets and teachings of religion. This understanding of literature as an undoer of all discourse, or as a means of speaking without articulating any neatly defined message, enjoys great currency in the field of postcolonial studies, where many critics use it to challenge highly politicized readings of work from North Africa, and other parts of the post-colonial world.12 Such readings are criticized as dangerously over-literal. Nicholas Harrison gives the extreme example of Driss Chraibi’s Le Passé simple, published in 1956 on the eve of French withdrawal from Morocco.13 Harrison documents the fact that the novel sparked a debate on Morocco’s readiness for independence, since its depiction of a dysfunctional patriarchal family in Morocco gave rise to discussions on whether the country was fit to rule itself. He makes the case, as cited above, that literature is mined for political content in the same way as other forms of political expression, but that it should instead be treated as a means of expression that does not necessarily impart any direct political knowledge. Similarly, the work of Algerian writer Assia Djebar is commonly read as a challenge to, or opening up of, the official historic records of colonial Algeria in French. This is done through her insertion of feminine/Arabic/Berber voices into the public sphere, where these have previously been overlooked. The canonical passage of the ‘qalam’14 [‘pen’] in L’Amour, La Fantasia, where the narrator pictures



herself picking up the severed hand of a female victim of a massacre ordered by general Fromentin in 1830, and placing in it a pen, expresses this desire to speak from silenced quarters (a feat that can only be accomplished within the realm of the imaginary), and thus to destabilize a narrative that has glossed over certain experiences and events from that period of history. When combined with sacred scripture, an over-insistence on literature as that which unravels monotheistic discourse reductively renders much of that discourse dogmatic, and overlooks the fact that it too has a nuanced structure and opaque linguistic elements that call for close analytical reading. Tariq Ramadan states that ‘the interpretation of [the Quran’s] verses is plural in nature’, and that ‘there has always existed an accepted diversity of readings among Muslims’.15 For Jane Hiddleston, the understanding of literature as a discourse that opens up other discourses, far from being inevitable, is an ideologically motivated, decon­ structionist one. Hiddleston discusses Jean-Luc Nancy’s dichotomy between litera­ ture and myth in his elaboration of the ways in which literature may allow a group of people to live together in a plurivocal way (as opposed to being drawn together though the notion of community which, Nancy argues, is too essentialist): Literature, for Nancy, itself connotes the end of community. While community is associated with myth, or with foundation, essence and origin, literature consists in the interruption of that myth. Myth is a narrative that grounds people in relation to its supposed origins, connecting past and present and conferring meaning and understanding on the community [...] Communal identification stems from the unifying symbol of the myth. Literature, on the other hand, offers a different model, in that it does not present itself as a completed essence, but as a fragment or a contingent moment.16

This notion of myth is applied by Benslama and fellow Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb to religious identity narratives, allowing them to posit literature as a major ‘interruption’ to sacred scripture. Such a designation of the narratives of sacred scripture as myth is reductive and, as Hiddleston points out, daring attempts to use literature as a means of opening up new horizons of thought often serve only to polarize people further. Hiddleston cites Rushdie’s Satanic Verses as an obvious example of this. As for the notion of literature as an inherently secular space, this too is problematic, and does not account for literary expression that posits itself as devotional and has been accepted as such. Bruce Robbins’s suggestion that critics must promote the notion of the literary as secular suggests that it may easily be conceived of otherwise. He says: if literature is the resistance to projects, then the fit between literary value and secularism would work only if secularism could be redescribed as the project of having no projects. If, however, secularism entails changing people’s minds [...] then this self-ref lexive self-image of literature would keep it from contributing significantly to the cause.17

Thus literature may only be secular if it is without conceptual agenda, which makes the definition almost impossible to apply to literature that proposes itself as antidogmatic in specifically theorized ways.



These ideas on the relationship between literature and sacred scripture are at play to varying degrees in the fictional work of Tunisian novelist and essayist Abdel­ wahab Meddeb, Algerian writer Assia Djebar, Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. For a more direct theoretical expression of the relationship between literature and sacred scripture, I will turn to Meddeb’s nonfiction, along with the work of Fethi Benslama. In thinking through problems associated with Muslim communities worldwide, both writers draw heavily and openly on the work of French and other European thinkers who express similar ideas on withdrawn divinity, on identity narratives in sacred scripture and the effect of fictional narratives on these, as well as on the relationship between literary and sacred texts more generally. Abdelwahab Meddeb’s work, for example, is close to that of Jean-Luc Nancy’s writing on divine withdrawal and its relationship to language, whilst Benslama claims to be extending Freud’s work on Judaism to Islam. Thus their work is best understood in light of that of European theorists, and of those who have had an effect on them. In addition to Nancy, aspects of the work of Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Luc Marion, although these authors are not openly cited by any of the North African, Middle Eastern, or other writers examined here, are featured for their pertinent resonances with their work, and because it belongs more broadly to French thinking traditions that have clearly inf luenced them. I will thus be charting the trajectory of a particular set of ideas passing from one literary and theoretical canon to another. I will ref lect on the fact that, although similar ideas on the relationship between literature and sacred scripture are expressed by writers from Muslim and non-Muslim, French and non-French-backgrounds, these ideas vary greatly in their implications depending on their religious and sociopolitical contexts. Edward Said argues that: theory has to be grasped in the place and time out of which it emerges as a part of that time, working in and for it, responding to it; then, consequently, that first place can be measured against subsequent places where the theory turns up for use.18

Here I attempt to assess the different stylistic outcomes and social implications of the work of writers who draw on similar ideas, but apply these in varying social and religious contexts. In broad terms, what is at stake for non-Muslim French writers differs from that which is at stake for writers with a background connection to Muslim communities. Nancy’s writing on religion, for example, makes the case that the modern secular world grows inevitably out of Christian thinking. Nancy frames his discussion in such a way as to suggest that this is a little-acknowledged fact that ought to be more widely recognized. As I will discuss in Chapter 1, Nancy draws in detail on theological material to establish the connection between Christianity and atheism. Nancy is one of a series of thinkers critiqued by Dominique Janicaud, who laments that ‘la phénoménologie a été prise en otage par une théologie qui ne veut pas dire son nom’ [phenomenology has been taken hostage by a theology that does not want to speak its name].19 For Janicaud, this is a reprehensible backwards step in phenomenology, which, he argues, should employ a methodology that cuts itself off from theological methods and concerns. Furthermore, Ian James cites Derrida’s astonishment at Nancy’s heavy use of traditional Christian vocabulary to outline a



position that is at such a remove from mainstream Christian belief. In particular, Derrida is struck by the closeness of the language used by Jean-Louis Chrétien, whose arguments stay within the parameters of mainstream Christian thinking, and by Nancy, who challenges this thinking: It is this possibility of substitution, the exchangeability of the terms of Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity with the most coherent, and perhaps even orthodox philosophical rendering of a ‘toucher Chrétien’, that so concerns Derrida [...] Derrida might ask, why does he not simply steer clear of Christo­ logical language [...]?20

Yet Nancy argues that his return to religious vocabulary ‘ne s’agit pas de repeindre les cieux, ni de les reconfigurer: il s’agit d’ouvrir la terre obscure et dure et perdurer dans l’espace’ [it is not a question of repainting the skies, or refiguring them: it is a question of opening up the earth — dark and hard and lost in space].21 Christopher Watkin identifies Nancy as part of a new wave of atheism in French thinking that distances itself from old forms. Watkin argues that these older forms occlude God and theological language, but maintain theological structures. They are either guilty of ‘replacing “God” ’ with a supposedly atheistic placeholder such as ‘Man’ or ‘Reason’, explicitly rejecting but implicitly imitating theology’s categories of thinking, changing merely the terms in which these categories are articulated’22 or of shunning all aspects of God and religion, living off the ‘meagre residue left over after the departure of God, Truth, Justice, Beauty and so on’.23 Nancy’s stage is characterized as a ‘turn to religion in order to turn the page on religion’.24 Ultimately, Nancy’s insistence on the inevitable culmination of Christian thought in atheism allows for a connection with Christian heritage without a return to traditional Christian teachings. It gestures towards a certain persistence of the theological in an intellectual and political climate where it is largely suppressed. Writers from North Africa and the Middle East are responding to a very different set of religious and political circumstances. The traditional ways in which Islam has been interpreted and practised are seen by many as a barrier to social and political progress and reform in contemporary society. Moreover, many come from countries where a strong public politico-religious discourse has emerged. For Meddeb and Benslama, literature is put forward as an anti-scriptural space that would direct the Muslim community’s attention away from scripture, opening it up to new laws and new modes of governance. Thus whilst the insistence of metropolitan writers like Nancy on the connection between a religious past and secular present suggests a desire for continuity with a past religious identity, for Meddeb and Benslama a similar paradigm that insists on an Islamic move towards the secular suggests a desire for severance with an over-politicized religious present. For Ben Jelloun, Maalouf, and Djebar, emphasis is on the individual sense of being stif led and restrained through the imposition of a monolithic collective identity. In their cases, literature becomes a vehicle for the exploration of personalized encounters with the divine, and for contesting the idea of a uniform religious identity. Beyond the two broad political and intellectual contexts outlined above, the work of each author is marked by further experiential specificities. The work of Geroges Perec, to which I will also refer, explores the question of what the Holocaust



indicates about the involvement of the divine in human destiny. Texts by the North African writers gesture (to varying degrees) to colonial history, whilst much of their treatment of sacred scripture is also governed by the political tensions at work in their respective countries in post-colonial times. Within North Africa, the specific circumstances of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco also play a role in diversifying approaches. The Tunisian writers featured here tend to express strong politically secularist sentiments, inspired by their own country’s secular regime before the Arab Spring. When critiquing religiously inspired violence, their focus is global, and they comment on major world incidents like the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001. Moroccan and Lebanese writers Ben Jelloun and particularly Maalouf negotiate a plethora of political and religious identities in their work, ref lecting the more diverse religious and political settings from which they emerge. The work of Algerian writers is strongly marked by the specific Islamist threat to the Algerian francophone intellectual community. Finally, there is the question of gender. Within the context of the final chapter, I will touch on the ways in which gender might affect the encounter with scriptural narratives. Chapter 1 explores two representations of the importance of language and human experience as vehicles for understanding the divine. It examines the ideas presented in Jean-Luc Nancy’s L’Intrus and Abdelwahab Meddeb’s Talismano on how human experience of the world and the language that attempts to represent this belie monotheistic notions of God. The divine is reduced in both cases to an unqualified form of excess that remains beyond the fixed notions of sacred scripture. In the case of Nancy, this excess is redefined as a space that is transposed from the heavenly realm to the world of human activity. It is experienced as the limit to what language can express and to the cohesion of bodily experience. For Meddeb, excess is mostly a behavioural phenomenon. It is the human need temporarily to break free from daily rhythms through both language and ritual, which is why literary reworking of sacred narratives is important to the continual development of a community’s identity. By highlighting the closeness of Meddeb’s ideas to those of Nancy, the chapter begins to demonstrate the effects and implications of a conscious extension of metropolitan philosophical approaches to sacred scripture to the Islamic tradition. Chapter 2 explores the theme of personalized encounters with the divine in Ben Jelloun’s L’Enfant de sable [The Sand Child] and Maalouf ’s Le Périple de Baldassare [Balthasar’s Odyssey]. In both cases, there is an affirmation of the divine, but one that is distanced from traditional monotheistic discourse. Looking at both novels in light of Blanchot’s writing on the suspended or withdrawn book in his essays ‘Le Livre à venir’ [‘The Book to Come’ ] and ‘L’Absence du livre’ [‘The Absent Book’ ], the chapter will outline the way in which the motif of a blank or withdrawn book that is common to both novels may be read as an expression of a desire to undermine collective and prescriptive aspects of monotheistic discourse, allowing for a greater freedom to personalize the language of encounters with the divine. This personalization is achieved through a rearticulation of religious narratives, which are blended into the stories of the protagonists. Both novels emerge from contexts in which religious identity is public, collective, and highly politicized, and



so their depictions of personalized encounters with the divine ref lect a reaction against such a political climate. Chapter 3 focuses on Georges Perec’s La Disparition [A Void] and Assia Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française [The Disappearance of the French Language], looking at the motif of vanishing bodies in both novels. Whereas the motif of the withdrawn book in Chapter 2 allows for a discussion of the ways in which religious narratives and images are reframed or rearticulated in literary space so as to personalize collective discourse, the motif of vanishing or withdrawn bodies in the novels of Perec and Djebar allows for the exploration of the way in which both texts seek to find a language for evoking the divine itself, without undermining its qualities of distance and unattainability. The texts will be examined through the optic of Marion’s ideas on the divine as empty space, distance, and silence, as expressed in his book L‘Idole et la distance [The Idol and Distance: Five Studies]. Marion maintains that any theological or philosophical attempt at explaining or describing God is a blasphemous idolatry, akin to making physical images of God. He advocates instead a language of silence that does not attempt to reduce the divine to human logic. Whilst Marion does not explicitly designate literature as the ideal textual space for articulations of the divine that do not fix or reduce it to any limiting concept, the texts of Djebar and Perec serve (perhaps inadvertently at times) to demonstrate the ways in which literature can function as a space for expressing silence or withdrawal.25 Marion’s analysis, in turn, allows for the reading of the motif of vanishing bodies in both texts as an articulation of the divine. The fourth and final chapter turns more fully to political considerations, by investigating the implications of dislodging the analysis of the practical teachings of sacred scripture (specifically the Quran) from its traditional context, and transposing it to literary space. It looks at the ways in which Assia Djebar’s novel Loin de Médine [Far from Medina] and Abdelwahab Meddeb’s literary récit Aya dans les villes [Aya in the Towns] favour an allegorizing approach to sacred scripture, in opposition to the writers’ understanding of a populist over-literalizing discourse, which favours use of sacred narrative for the extrapolation of rigid laws, as well as for the fixing of a defining historical moment and set of narratives that mark the origins of Islamic identity. Both novels are examined through the optic of psychoanalyst Benslama’s ref lections on the troubled relationship between sacred scripture and fiction, as presented in his Freudian study La Psychanalyse à l’épreuve de l’islam [Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam]. All three writers designate fictional contemplation of the same narratives as the means by which notions of a unified historical moment of beginning, as well as a unified understanding of sacred text and law, become fragmented. In this way, narratives that have been hedged in by the rigid and limiting interpretations offered of them through public politico-religious discourse are once again opened up for further interpretation. Chapter 4 also considers the question of gender, and whether Djebar seeks to appropriate religious historic narratives in ways that differ from Benslama and Meddeb. Each chapter will thus offer an analysis of the responses of literary texts to sacred scripture and notions of the divine and its role in public life in a variety of social and political situations, building towards an exploration of the contention that literature



is incompatible with sacred scripture and its dogmatic religious usages, as is put forward by Meddeb and Benslama and explored in the final chapter. Notes to the Introduction 1. See Ian Richard Netton, Text and Trauma: An East West Primer (Richmond: Routledge Curzon, 1996), p. 86. Netton notes that the historicity of the episode of the ‘satanic verses’ has been called into question by both Muslim scholars and Orientalists alike. Many have found it implausible, opportunistic, and generally lacking in authenticity. 2. Fethi Benslama, Une Fiction troublante: de l’origine en partage (La Tour d’Aigues: Éditions de l’Aube, 1994), p. 22. 3. Rushdie, Salman, Imaginary Homelands (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 393. 4. Ibid., p.393. 5. Ibid. 6. Ibid., p.395. 7. Nicholas Harrison, ‘Metaphorical Memories: Freud, Conrad and the Dark Continent’, in Postcolonial Poetics: Genre and Form, ed. by Patrick Crowley and Jane Hiddleston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 49–70 ( p. 52). 8. Michael Riffaterre, ‘On the Complementarity of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies’, in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, ed. by Charles Bernheimer (London and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 66–76 (pp. 72–73). 9. Chris Bongie, ‘(Not) Razing the Walls: Glissant, Trouillot and the Post-Politics of World Literature’, in Transnational French Studies: Postcolonialism and Littérature-monde, edited by Alec G. Hargreaves, Charles Forsdick, and David Murphy (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), pp.125–45 (p. 141). 10. Bruce Robbins, ‘Is Literature a Secular Concept? Three Earthquakes’, Modern Language Quarterly, 72 (2011), 293–317 (p. 295). 11. Ibid., p. 315. 12. The term is hyphenated here in accordance with Alec G. Hargreaves’s assertion that the hyphenated term refers chronologically to the era that succeeds colonialism. The nonhyphenated term (postcolonial) is used more broadly to designate anything that addresses the power dynamic or power struggle between colonizer and colonized, irrespective of whether this occurs before, during, or after decolonization. See Memory, Empire and Postcolonialism: Legacies of French Colonialism, ed. by Alec G. Hargreaves (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). 13. See Harrison, Postcolonial Criticism. 14. Assia Djebar, L’Amour, La Fantasia (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995), p. 313. 15. Tariq Ramadan, ‘Reading the Koran’, The New York Times, 6 January 2008, [accessed 16 October 2013]. 16. Jane Hiddleston, ‘The Politics of Literary Criticism: Nancy and Rushdie’, The Oxford Literary Review, 27 (2005), 119–38 (p. 121). 17. Robbins, ‘Is Literature a Secular Concept?’, p. 296. 18. Edward Said, The World, the Text, the Critic (London: Faber, 1984), p. 242. 19. Dominique Janicaud, Le Tournant théologique de la phénoménologie française (Combas: Éclat, 1991), p. 31/Phenomenology and the Theological Turn: The French Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), p. 89. Janicaud specifically critiques a slippage he perceives in the work of phenomenological thinkers between the Kantian concept of ‘immanence’, a space of excess that forms part of the material world, and the theological designation of excess as a form of transcendence, of excess as distant, ethereal, celestial. 20. Ian James, ‘Incarnation and Infinity’, in Retreating Religion: Deconstructing Christianity with Jean-Luc Nancy, ed. by Ignaas Devis, Laurence Ten Kate, and Aujke Van Rooden (New York: Fordham Press, 2010), pp. 246–60 (p. 252). Derrida himself draws on and secularizes religious terminology, for example when he presents a ‘messianic’ vision of history in Spectres de Marx: l’état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale (Paris: Galilée, 1993).



21. Jean-Luc Nancy, La Déconstruction du christianisme (Paris: Galilée, 2005), p. 9/Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. by Bettina Bergo, Gabril Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 1. 22. Christopher Watkin, Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), pp. 1–2. 23. Ibid., p. 5. 24. Ibid., p. 13. 25. Nicholas Harrison identifies a tendency in Djebar to sanctify the act of reading fiction, as is evidently the case in an aptly entitled section, ‘Déchirer l’invisible’ [Tearing the invisible], from the autobiographical Nulle Part dans la maison de mon père. The narrator juxtaposes her experiences of listening to Quranic recitation with listening to recitations of Baudelaire in class, and recounts her exclusion from being taught classical Arabic alongside that of being initiated into the world of French literature, as if to suggest that the literary took the place of the sacred. (Personal communication.) Djebar’s work generally features explorations of the relationship of the literary to the religious, but this is more oblique in La Disparition de la langue française (Paris: Albin Michel, 2003).

Chapter 1


Body, Text, Excess Introduction This chapter compares and contrasts notions of the divine and of its place in human activity presented in the work of Jean-Luc Nancy and Abdelwahab Meddeb. It focuses in particular on their designation of writing as a site for encountering the divine. Nancy explicitly reworks the divine into human life as a gap or interstice that always frustrates attempts at maintaining a cohesive understanding of human experience. It is a space of excess of which one remains aware when attempting to render experience into language, always leaving the impression that there is some­thing beyond the expressible. Meddeb offers no explicit qualification of the divine in his work, beyond endorsing marginal intellectual Muslim movements from history that have advocated separating God from his revealed text. The effect of this is to make God so withdrawn from the human realm as to have no continuing inf luence on human activity through the sacred text. Instead, Meddeb highlights a need for excessive human rituals and behaviours that are dictated by bodily rhythms, and that connect communities to narratives of the past, including those contained in sacred scripture. In this way, communities maintain identities that are vernacular and f luid. For Meddeb there is no divine, only excess. The term designates to some extent a space or gap in meaning akin to that described by Nancy, but more importantly in Meddeb’s work, it is represented as a necessary characteristic of human behaviour, which finds release in excessive rituals and artistic expression. In contrast to traditional monotheistic notions of inscription, which propose sacred scripture as a textual site for encountering the divine, Meddeb and Nancy place the emphasis on writing as a means of encountering excess. Whilst the sacred text is divinely inspired, writing is the product of human experience. Both Meddeb and Nancy place the importance of the rhythms and logic of the human body in writing, and so language becomes the site of encounter between body, text, and the excess that stands beyond and between them. These ideas are played out in Nancy’s highly personal semi-literary account of his heart transplant L’Intrus, and Meddeb’s novel Talismano. I will suggest that, to a great extent, the overlap between the ideas of Meddeb and Nancy demonstrate novel ways of extending European philosophical approaches to Islam.


Body, Text, Excess

A Transposition of the Divine in Nancy’s thinking Nancy rethinks the substance of the divine and its relationship to the world by subverting the concept of Incarnation. He challenges the more traditional view of Incarnation as the encasing of an otherworldly divine in human f lesh, in opposition to the widely accepted doctrine of hypostatic union.1 Instead, Nancy moves away from a monotheistic logic of enclosure, inscription, and internalization of the divine towards one of ‘dis-enclosure’,2 externalization, and what he terms ‘ex-scription’, or ‘writing-out’. Nancy builds his argument on the Pauline doctrine of Kenosis, a Greek term meaning ‘emptying out’, which opposes itself to the notion of hypostatic union and to which only a minority of Christians adhere. The controversial doctrine proposes that in becoming f lesh, Jesus had to forego certain divine attributes, for example those of omnipresence and omnipotence, which means that the incarnation did not involve the bringing together of divinity in its otherworldly form with human f lesh. Nancy takes the logic of Kenosis even further, by suggesting that incarnation involves not only the emptying out of certain divine attributes, but the complete self-emptying of divine substance. That is to say that, through incarnation, God does not enter f lesh, but disappears into that f lesh, and therefore ceases to become divinity, leaving an empty space in the dimension of the divine which, for Nancy, becomes divinity itself. In this way, Christian monotheism marks the end of divine presence. God is ‘le dieu dont l’absence fait proprement la divinité, ou le dieu dont le vide-de divinité est proprement la vérité’ [a god whose absence in itself creates divinity, or a god whose void-of-divinity is the truth],3 and Kenosis is the ‘devenir-vide de Dieu, ou son “se vider de soi” ’[emptying out of God, or his ‘emptying-himself-out-of-himself ’].4 For Nancy, the divine is the empty residual space left behind in the act of withdrawal. This divine space of excess is not part of an ‘arrière monde’ [worldsbehind-the-world],5 a higher world, a celestial realm outside worldly time and matter which guarantees meaning in the world, and which is tethered to a dogmatic control of spiritual life. It is part of a ‘dehors du monde’ [outside of the world],6 a space that exceeds the world, but that is within it, even though it remains beyond reach. Language and the body offer openings onto this space, and are not repositories of it. Nancy uses the term ‘ex-scription’7 for writing that skirts the limits between bodily existence, language, and the divine. The term clearly opposes itself to the traditional monotheistic concept of inscription, which transmits the idea that divine essence is contained within sacred scripture. For Nancy, monotheism is at its very heart characterized by a logic of void, trace, vestige, and absence: le monothéisme, dans son principe, défait le théisme, c’est-à-dire la présence de la puissance qui assemble le monde et assure son sens. Il rend donc absolument problématique le nom de “dieu” — il le rend non-signifiant — et surtout, il lui retire tout pouvoir d’assurance. [In its principle, monotheism undoes theism, that is to say, the presence of the power that assembles the world and assures this sense. It thus renders absolutely problematic the name god — it renders it nonsignifying — and above all, it withdraws all powers of assurance from it.]8

Body, Text, Excess


Monotheism is a constant negotiation of the void that is left by a withdrawn God. It is the impossibility of making sense of absence and withdrawal. The very name ‘dieu’ becomes a non-signifier, or a signifier of nothing. Nancy’s understanding of monotheism transforms the invisible divine from a guarantor of order and meaning in the world through its twinning with a higher realm that carries the promise of order and meaning to all worldly occurrences. Instead, the space of the divine offers nothing more than its own emptiness. This emptiness can be intuited, and is often signalled in the act of writing, but can never be adequately reduced to any discursive worldly logic. Nancy characterizes this space of excess as one of ‘aréalité’ [‘areality’],9 the term signifying its presence within the world, in opposition to tradi­ tional monotheistic belief in the divine’s ethereality, which carries connotations of the celestial and transcendent. L’Intrus Although not a work of fiction, Nancy’s essay, which ref lects on a heart transplant he had undergone ten years before, offers a personal account that is not quite fully steeped in theoretical language and that possesses a semi-literary quality. Most notably, the tone of the piece is not consistently theoretical, betraying the infiltration of an emotional and bodily response to the experience, for which Nancy struggles to find an adequate idiom and register. Nancy ref lects in the essay on what it is that ultimately constitutes or characterizes the self. He ref lects on the seat of subjectivity, asking how, if the heart is both physically and symbolically at the core of identity, one is able to live on as oneself with the heart of another. This question resolves itself not by ultimately locating or underpinning a seat for the self in place of the heart, but by suggesting the ways in which physical experience and language are both incomplete and defy cohesion, and that neither proposes an alternative single focal point from which the self emanates. Their incompleteness gestures towards or opens onto the excess that neither can encapsulate. It also demonstrates their inability to encapsulate one another. Nancy uses bodily rhythms in language that echo the rhythms of his experience. Yet his constant slippage between a multiplicity of idioms, all of which are applicable, but not fully appropriate, suggests he struggles to find the register that fits his experience comfortably. Moreover, the space of excess evoked by language and the experience of the body is shaped to some extent by these, since it can only be glimpsed through them. The text straddles two key registers. The first of these is a theoretical register conveying distance and abstraction, ref lecting on the difficulties in defining what is ‘propre’ [own] and what is ‘étranger’ [foreign] in a transplant situation. The other voice in the text is an autobiographical one, offering the memoir of a sighing transplant veteran, struggling to encompass the enormity of his experience. Interjections like ‘quel étrange moi!’ [‘What a strange self!]10 doubly express theoretical and personal sentiment. Moreover, the text is full of almost absent-minded slippages and distractions. Discussing the fact that his transplant depends on so many chance contextual factors (the fact that a suitable heart should become available, that his survival should be deemed important by others, that dying aged only fifty in this


Body, Text, Excess

particular age should be considered ‘scandaleux’ [scandalous]11 where it would have been acceptable in the past), Nancy’s narrative voice continually ponders his choice of vocabulary: ‘que signifie “survivre”? est-ce d’ailleurs un terme approprié? [...] Pourquoi le mot “scandaleux” peut-il me venir aujourd’hui dans ce contexte?’ [What does it mean ‘to survive’? Is it even a suitable term? [...] Why today does the word ‘scandalous’ come to mind in this context?]12 There is something of an absent-mindedness and disorientation about this, betraying the bewildering effect of the transplant. Nancy’s constant ref lection on his choice of language also suggests the ways in which language can be ill-fitting, generating false allusions. He muses, for example, on the way in which his experience of transplant highlights a problem with the use of the personal pronoun ‘je’. This seems to allude falsely to a subject that is cohesive and internally consistent. It remains, nonetheless, unavoidable: j’ai (qui, ‘je’? C’est précisément la question, la vieille question: quelle est ce sujet de l’énonciation, toujours étranger au sujet de son énoncé, dont il est forcément l’intrus et pourtant forcément le moteur, l’embrayeur et le cœur). [I have — Who — this ‘I’ is precisely the question, the old question: what is the enunciating subject? Always foreign to the subject of its own utterance; necessarily intruding upon it, yet ineluctably its motor, shifter or heart.]13

Nancy’s assertion underpins a disparity between bodily experience and language, despite their mutual interdependence. His language, however, incorporates strat­ egies for expressing the fragmentation of subjectivity that undermines the cohe­ sive­ness of the ‘je’. For example, Susan Hanson14 comments on the wide use of connectives in the essay such as ‘donc’, ‘mais’, and ‘pourtant’ — thus, but, however. The abundance of these seems to generate a forced sense of cohesiveness that mimics the act of bodily synthesizing and suturing that takes place during an organ transplant. Nancy’s language thus works to undermine any illusion of cohesiveness in a way that matches his bodily experience of fragmentation. In addition, Nancy’s constant slippage between idioms suggests that language not only ref lects the experiences of the body, but that it stumbles upon an area of excess that marks it with a sense of incompletion or inadequacy. For example, Nancy notes that he is told: ‘ “votre cœur était programmé pour durer jusqu’à cinquante ans” ’ [‘your heart has been programmed to last to the age of fifty’]15 and responds with the following ref lection: ‘mais quel est ce programme dont je ne peux faire ni destin ni providence? Ce n’est qu’une courte séquence programmatique dans une absence générale de programme’ [But what programme is this from which I can fashion neither providence nor fate? No more than a short programmatic sequence in a general absence of programming].16 The use of the participle ‘programmé’ is, of course, borrowed from modern technological discourse to explain an organic phenomenon. The use of the passive, however, where it would have been fine in a technological context that assumes a human mind is responsible for an action, becomes problematic when talking about a human heart. Whilst the notion of programming suggests a large degree of control, Nancy has no control over the ‘destin’ and the ‘providence’ of his heart. His team of medical carers has only the potential ability to repair it. They are not the ones who have ‘programmed’ it in the first instance. The terms ‘destin’ and ‘providence’ are clearly borrowed from a

Body, Text, Excess


religious vocabulary, and stand out in relation to the notion of a programmed heart, whilst the notion of an ‘absence générale de programme’ suggests the inadequacy of both technological and religious registers when it comes to talking about the duration of a body, and thus the duration of a life. And whilst the length of a life is determined by the length of the duration of a body, ‘life’ is not located in the body: Quelle est cette vie ‘propre’ qu’il s’agit de ‘sauver’? Il s’avère donc au moins que cette propriété ne réside en rien dans ‘mon’ corps. Elle n’est située nulle part, ni dans cette organe dont la réputation symbolique n’est plus à faire. [What is this life ‘proper’ that is a matter of ‘saving’? At the very least it turns out that it in no way resides in ‘my’ body; it is not situated anywhere, not even in this organ whose symbolic renown has long been established.]17

Language is distanced or defamiliarized here through Nancy’s persistent recourse to inverted commas, as well as his questioning of conventional vocabulary when it comes to expressing his transplant experience. There is an element of the inexpressible that comes between words and the idea to which they are supposed to gesture. This is an elusive excess, and is never adequately evoked, creating the need for repetition, for constant paraphrase and reformulation. L’Intrus ultimately plays out a notion of the divine that is based on a logic of opening as opposed to enclosure. Opening is characterized by a lack of cohesion and completion. It is a challenge to the holistic and the totalitarian. In this way, Nancy’s divine, although proposed as a logical progression of the monotheistic understanding of a withdrawn divinity, also stands in opposition to any monotheistic logic of enclosure, inscription, or incarnation. And rather than being experienced as a guarantor of sense and meaning in the world, it is encountered where there is disjointedness or lack of cohesion. Meddeb and the Withdrawal of the Divine Nancy proposes the dissolution of the idea of the monotheistic God that is logically inherent in Christianity. Meddeb proposes a similar dissolution of the idea of God, not by reinterpreting any core teachings of Islam, but by insisting that religious identity is sustained through narratives that inevitably become altered and distorted over time. The idea of God is incorporated into these narratives, and changes as the narratives do. Meddeb presents an outline of the historic genesis of Islam which suggests that the totalizing framework of the religion is susceptible to being fragmented and subsumed into myriad local practices that overlook scriptural law and that privilege personal experience over prophetic discourse. Scriptural law, Meddeb argues, is too static to survive: ‘Le prérogative du Prophète reste l’apport de la loi et des fondements de la religion particulière. Personnne d’autre ne peut participer à un tel apport ou y prétendre’18 [It remains the Prophet’s prerogative to produce the law and fundamental teachings of a specific religion. No one else may participate in the process or lay claim to it]. The result is a discourse that is ‘définitivement clos’19 [definitively enclosed]. In opposition to this:


Body, Text, Excess reste ouvert le domaine de l’expérience qui implique la religion naturelle, c’est-à-dire l’espace de béatitude, la puissance visionnaire, la grâce de l’extase, le délire saint [...] la célébration de la chair sous l’égide d’Éros. Tout ce qui témoigne de l’entrée du sujet dans l’aire sacrée de l’Invisible reste ouvert et disponible selon la capacité de chacun.20 [the domain of experience which encompasses natural religion remains open, that is to say the space of bliss, of visionary power, of the beauty of extasy and sacred delirium, [...] of the celebration of f lesh under the aegis of Eros. All that which bears witness to the subject’s entry into the sacred realm of the Invisible remains open and available to each individual in accordance with their own capacity.]

It is this changing aspect of religion that assures its continual pertinence. In this way, ‘les saints peuvent même être supérieurs au prophètes’21 [saints can even by superior to prophets]. The experiences and discourses of local saints ultimately resonate more powerfully than a receding prophetic discourse. Meddeb argues that the anthropological withdrawal of the prophetic discourse and of the notion of God, along with the divine law and prescribed rituals that it upholds, is repeatedly interrupted throughout history by reactionary voices that favour more fixed and literal approaches to sacred scripture, and that impose prescriptive understandings of the divine, of Quranic law, and of modes of worship. In La Maladie de l’islam, Meddeb sketches an outline of the different strands of Islam that have emerged over the centuries, suggesting that for every move towards loosening the hold of sacred scripture over the population, another strand has developed in order to curb such efforts. Medieval Arabia saw the emergence of the Mu’tazila, a sect that preached that the Quran was a fallible part of creation, in opposition to the traditional understanding that the Quran is the uncreated speech of God. Meddeb suggests that their line of thinking loosened the hold of God over the religious community by loosening the divine hold over the text by which the community lived. The Mu’tazlia was opposed by the orthodox scholar Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, whose stance on the Quran as the uncreated speech of God was uncompromising. The sect was ultimately outlawed and their inf luence died away. Subsequent voices of orthodoxy listed by Meddeb include that of Ibn Taymiyyah in the thirteenth century, and then of the Saudi Arabian Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahab in the eighteenth century, whose followers are known as ‘Wahabis’. These voices pitted themselves against the Sufi practice of taking local saints and adopting vernacular forms of worship. Meddeb suggests that reactionary voices progressively increased in rigidity and popularity until they have now become the populist voices in many parts of the Muslim world. He cites, for example, the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah’s Hanbalite stance went further than that of Ibn Hanbal himself, who would not have denounced the localized cult of saints as Ibn Taymiyyah later did. Eighteenth-century followers of Ibn Abdal Wahab were outlawed by their local Ottoman governments, and condemned for their ignorance and for their emphasis on the practice of excommunication (liberally applied to those who disagreed with their particular readings of the Quran). This group was reinstated with force with

Body, Text, Excess


the rise of Saudi Arabian wealth in the twentieth century, and theirs is now the official form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia and exported from it. It is positions such as these that maintain the fixity of scripture and stand in the way of revised readings and adaptability, according to Meddeb. The natural course for language and the body, as outlined in Meddeb’s work, is one of detachment from monotheistic hegemony. This freedom from an inert monotheistic force allows for greater dynamism and creative literary expression. It is often set, moreover, against a backdrop of solid, often geological forms that are commonly associated with paganism. Meddeb constantly puts forward an understanding of the physical world as defiantly enduring in such a way as to undermine monotheistic claims that the qualities of endurance and eternity belong to the monotheistic divine alone. Unqualified forms, such as geological ones, are presented as triumphing over the meaning and substance with which they are endowed by outlasting them. Meddeb’s work reveres them in ways that clearly seek to reverse the Quranic assertion that it is the earth that is perishable, whilst God endures: ‘all that is on earth will perish | But will abide (for ever) The Face of Thy Lord, full of Majesty and Bounty and Honour’.22 For example, looking at the alphabetical forms of the traditional Islamic art of calligraphy, which f lourishes in place of portraiture because of the religious proscription on representational art, Meddeb asserts that the curvaceous shapes of these evoke images of ‘serpent’, ‘dragon’, ‘bateau’ [boat], or ‘météore’ [meteorite].23 Such images are reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman pagan mythology, replete with monsters, voyages, and astrology. The implication of pagan shapes made by Islamic calligraphy seeking to move away from images with pagan associations suggests that one set of meanings cannot be wiped away at will to allow another to be introduced. Moreover, Meddeb favours pagan forms of religion as being more closely associated with worldly rhythms, and as thus having a greater power to endure than a spiritual system based on a universal abstract. The remoteness of such an abstract divinity means that more earthly and bodily spiritual impulses inevitably take over. In another discussion on alphabetical forms, this time from within the Quran, Meddeb recounts the fact that in the earliest stages of Quranic compilation, Arabic was written using forms without their diacritical marks.24 This, he argues, allowed for a ‘pluralité de lectures’25 [plurality of readings]. He cites the example of Christophe Luxenberg, who is able to carry out a Syrio-Aramaic reading of a Quranic chapter, replacing the Arabic diacritical marks on the letters with SyrioAramaic ones. The effect of this is that the meaning of the chapter changes from: ‘1. Nous t’avons donné l’Abondance. 2. Prie donc pour ton Seigneur et sacrifie. 3. L’ennemi qui te hait c’est lui qui est sans postérité’26 [‘1. We have given you Abundance. 2. Thus pray to your Lord and offer sacrifice. 3. The enemy that detests you is the one without posterity’] to ‘1. Nous t’avons donné la constance. 2. Prie donc ton Seigneur et persévère. 3. Celui qui te hait (Satan), c’est lui le vaincu’27 [‘1. We have given you constancy. 2. Thus pray to your Lord and persevere. 3. The one who detests you (Satan) is the one who will be overcome’]. Meddeb argues that the notion of such a Christian reading of the Quran obtained by punctuating the forms with the characters of a language of Christianity is in keeping with the Quran’s heavy intertextual borrowing from anterior cultures


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and scriptures. What is interesting here is that Meddeb seems to advocate the use of alphabetical structures that are fixed in shape, but that can be infused with or inhabited by different meanings depending on smaller shapes that may be added and removed at will. Once again, cavernous form here is more enduring than any sense of intrinsic meaning or content. The importance of physical and natural rhythms when it comes to exploring divine excess is evident in Meddeb’s fictional writing. Whilst Nancy emphasizes the role of the literary in ‘ex-scribing’ encounters with divine excess, Meddeb puts forward an understanding of literary writing (and art more generally) as a necessary exercise for social self-contemplation: La question de la représentation est essentielle pour apprécier l’état des peuples et des nations. Sa carence ou son absence provoque pénurie et vacuité, qui peuvent être comblées par le pire sous la forme de compensations qui re­couvrent la béance en recourant au mythes de l’origine. Or c’est avant tout l’art qui traduit l’énergie de la représentation. Par les oeuvres qu’il produit agit l’économie du symbolique et de l’imaginaire dans leur articulation avec le réel. Et les rééquilibrages entre ces trois ordres — symbolique, imaginaire, réel — contribuent à structurer le sujet.28 [The question of representation is essential for the assessment of peoples and nations. Its absence or deficiency create a sense of lack or void which may come to be filled in the worst way with compensatory myths about a people’s origins. It is above all art which communicates the energy of representation. It is through works of art that the encounter of the real with the imaginary and the symbolic takes place. And the dynamic between these three orders — the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic — contributes to the structuring of the subject.]

The implication here, however, is that, as with ‘ex-scription’, literature is an open­ ing onto divine excess, without which a community would have recourse to ‘mythes des origines’. The ‘mythes’ to which Meddeb critically alludes are endorsed through the hadith, historical narratives relating to the life of the Prophet and his community, which inspire a contemporary desire literally to recreate the conditions of the time (particularly through the practice of scriptural religious law with minimal interpretation). It becomes clear that, for Meddeb, there is a dichotomy between literary language, which engages with sacred scripture and the idea of excess in ways that are not prescriptive or absolute, and some theological readings of scripture which can be more bland and literalist. Unlike the religious literalism to which Meddeb alludes above, literature, by interpreting reality through the optic of the ‘symbolique’ and the ‘imaginaire’, negotiates the notion of divine excess in ways that are more rich and subtle, and open to vernacular interpretation. Talismano Meddeb’s 1987 novel Talismano, like much of the rest of his prose fiction, is a literary opening up of the motifs and narratives specific to Islamic monotheism. This is done chief ly by proposing radically allegorized interpretations of their meanings and usages, and by amalgamating aspects of monotheistic religious practice with the

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pagan practices against which it traditionally defines itself. Thus Meddeb performs the notion of the literary as a space where religious sources are interpreted freely, and where an encounter with excess is expressed in free and highly personalized or localized terms. The novel begins with a narrative voice that is not connected to any specific story or place, offering a succession of essay-style musings on religion and spirituality. Almost half way through the text, the narrative turns its attention to a street procession, in which the narrator seems to be taking part. The register of the philosophizing voice begins to drop, crudely evoking the visceral nature of the procession, which culminates in the exhumation of body parts from a variety of graves. These are sewn together to create an idol of rotting f lesh, which is paraded through the city (the city is unnamed, but reference to a ‘casbah’ suggests an urban Maghrebian setting) and then placed inside a mosque. The procession following the idol then becomes a mass orgy. It features motifs and places that are a part of normal daily rhythms in the casbah. These are subverted by being endowed with new and perverse functions and meanings throughout the procession. The text puts forward a notion of excess at the limits of daily life in a way that echoes Bataille’s notions of the sacred as an overturning of daily laws and norms. The novel also constantly refers to Islamic texts, practices, and images, subjecting these to visceral readings. The key notions that form the logic of the procession in Talismano are freedom to interpret and to allegorize even the most rigidly defined intellectual and architectural structures, a privileging of bodily urges and rhythms, as well as an insistence upon localization of meaning. The procession thus takes on a particular f low and significance that are determined by its local setting. These are the three key elements that Meddeb consistently privileges over collectively interpreted and imposed sacred law in his understanding of the encounter with excess. Literary space is presented as the intellectual site that allows for the freest and most creative interpretations of religious narratives, whilst Bakhtinian instances of carnival procession allow for the greatest freedom of bodily expression. Fiction places no restriction on the ways in which sacred narrative may be reworked and reinterpreted. The highly personalized and seemingly spontaneous expressions of excess suggest the endless possibilities of such localized expression. As in Nancy’s L’Intrus, the notion of a space of excess that both surrounds and eludes writing is explicitly laid out by the narrator in Talismano. He ref lects, for example, on the way in which writing never fully encapsulates all that it means to convey: ‘l’écriture [...] délivre rarement certitude ou véracité à l’énergie de l’événement: celui-ci s’échappe libre, volant de son propre moteur’ [writing [...] rarely lends certainty or accuracy to the explosion of events, for the event breaks free, self-propelled].29 His reference to an ‘énergie de l’événement’ as opposed to the ‘événement’ itself suggests an impalpable space of meaning that exceeds even the event that writing might wish to recount. This is also a space that is intuited through physical experience or events. The role of writing is therefore not merely to record what is seen or done, but to go beyond this, exposing a more excessive dimension to meaning: ‘je refute celle [l’écriture] qui se limite à décrire les choses telles qu’elles s’observent rien que fixité sans en voir les implications qui les transfigurent’ [I


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contest any writing restricted to describing things as they are observed, as nothing but fixedness, without grasping the implications that transfigure them].30 Writing must therefore open onto a space of excess, but should not expect to conquer or encapsulate this space. Writing, moreover, is presented as part of a dynamic that is largely governed by a logic of the body: Par où s’agite l’écriture? Le corps entouré de ses événements et livres s’y déverse par profit des mots autres tant qu’il accumule et dépense, à s’y inscrire image spéculaire témoignant des détails simultanés, miroir où se glorifie la richesse et la misère indicible du corps. [For where does writing begin? The body, surrounded by events and books, spills back into the world words of another kind, as it keeps accumulating and expending, inscribing a mirror image of itself, testifying as to all the coincident details, raising a looking glass where the body’s indescribable wealth and misery are displayed in all their glory.]31

The narrator thus presents writing as an impulse for the body to inscribe itself, and illustrates this through use of a base bodily vocabulary that ref lects the bodily imprint on writing: ‘L’écriture se présente à l’œil en train de se fabriquer progéniture, vomissures, fèces, enfant, fruit, à gerber, à chier’ [Writing shows us the eye in the process of producing offspring, vomit, faeces, children, fruit, puking, shitting].32 The attribution of base bodily functions to writing consolidates the idea that writing is of the body. It is part of an order of meaning that is determined by the body, the fragmentary, the perishable, and thus it too comes to embody these same qualities. It is interesting to note also that the text discusses the visual qualities of writing, an approach perhaps inspired by the idea of calligraphy, which places a big emphasis on the visual aspect of text. But where calligraphy is intended to have an uplifting effect that turns one’s attention towards a higher reality, Meddeb’s narrative presents the notion of text as a ref lection of the base and the bodily, even on a visual level. This is both because it gestures towards a bodily reality as opposed to a higher divine realm, and because it is perceived through use of a bodily organ. Writing is itself, then, a space of excess, a space that is removed from the body, but onto which the body opens. The body in turn exceeds writing, remaining ‘indicible’ [indescribable]. Both writing and the body are, in addition, openings onto a space of excess that eludes them both, the space of ‘l’énergie de l’événement’. As in L’Intrus, therefore, the text sets up a structure of interconnecting body, text, and excess, where the former two open onto and elude each other, as well as onto a space of excess that eludes them both, but that is viewed through a localized bodily and linguistic optic. Further to Meddeb’s establishing a relationship between body, text, and excess that calls to mind the layering of all three in L’Intrus, in Talismano, Meddeb goes on to demonstrate the implications of fictionalization, of placing religious narratives within the realm of literary space, for the time-honoured understanding of such narratives. Through the literary motif of the carnivalesque, the text subverts a range of religious textual and spatial symbols, subjecting these to the creative logic of bodily and linguistic freedom. For example, religious narratives that traditionally

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culminate in a protagonist’s espousal of monotheistic beliefs are transposed to fit a logic of bodily impulse, where an opening onto excess culminates not in devotional sentiment towards a monotheistic deity, but in being overcome by an erotic charge. Moreover, the concept of localizing, as opposed to universalizing, encounters with excess, leads to a fragmentation of overarching theological eschatologies, such that the apocalyptic destruction of worldly reality at the end of time becomes a localized and repeated phenomenon. The text presents writing as a site where the dimensions of time collapse almost apocalyptically: Mais par dépense et accumulation concomitante, elle brouille l’analogie à la loi naturelle où les deux phénomènes dans le temps se succèdent. L’écriture vit et meurt simultanément. Dès qu’elle s’inscrit définitivement elle n’est plus que cadavre à donner en pâture en croque-mort, tentation au techniciste de s’armer du bistouri et de s’habiller chirurgien du texte. [But through all this concomitant accumulation and expenditure, writing blurs its relationship to the law of nature whereby two phenomena must follow one another in time. Writing lives and dies simultaneously. As soon as a draft is definitive, nothing remains but a corpse to be served up to the undertaker — hence the technician’s temptation to take scalpel in hand and perform surgery on the text.]33

Written text distinguishes itself from physical reality in that it breaks the natural laws of time which, for example, dictate that death succeeds birth. Moreover, the following passage illustrates the collapse of worldly time in more overtly religious tones: L’écriture mélange les saisons, elle s’assume vrac de chaud et froid, été comme hiver, elle ref lète le désordre du corps plus que la loi primordiale: elle est chaos qui précède le fiat, géantomachie à obstruer le désir de s’inventer ordre des dieux: elle est en deça, descente, souterrain, enfers, regression, totalité tâtonnante: elle est tribune qui coupe de part en part l’édifice, ambon cassant l’uniformité de l’espace narratif. [Writing mixes up the seasons, resolving the usual jumble of hot and cold, summer or winter: it ref lects the messiness of the body more than any primordial law: it is chaos more than fiat, a battle of giants meant to obstruct the desire to invent oneself according to some divine order: it is with us, a descent, subterranean, underworld, regression, a groping toward totality: it is the gallery that cuts through the edifice end to end, the ambo breaking up the uniformity of narrative space.]34

The language of apocalypse and judgement that begins to emerge in the passage above reappears in the text as a crowd begins to gather on the streets of the casbah before the advent of the sorceress. The crowd is in fact attracted to the spot by an elderly bearded man who preaches the coming of the end of time: Il crie et le message eschatologique s’avère ordinaire: nous vivrons la fin des temps; le cataclysme est proche; ô gens, écoutez, croyants ou incroyants, préparez vous à vous libérer propres: la terre crachera ses entrailles; lune et soleil s’affronteront, les étoiles consumeront nos modestes plaines; les étoiles s’effondreront poussière; les mers déferleront.


Body, Text, Excess [His eschatological message proves banal: the end is near, the cataclysm is fast upon us, O good people, lend an ear, believers or nonbelievers, prepare and be cleansed: the earth shall cough up its bowels; moon and sun clash, the stars scorch our humble plains, the mountains crumble to dust, the seas swallow us.]35

Whilst the Quran speaks of a Day of Judgement eschatologically, and as the day when some of the world’s most constant and potent features (mountains, seas, skies, etc.) will collapse, the language of the elderly preacher is tinged with a corporeal, almost erotically charged subtext through its use of bodily imagery (an earth that spits out its bowels, a sun and moon in conf lict, the idea that stars will take away human modesty, suggesting physical and moral exposure). The consequence of his speech is not that a crowd gathers round to listen reverently, in awe of the big day to come, but that it seems to go on to enact the proposed events. In the first instance, three women wishing to imitate the movements of the elderly preacher, who has moved himself to sobs, ‘agitent le torse et les bras à droite puis à gauche’ [reprise his brutal, half-circular swinging motions of the arms].36 Their movements are slowly taken up by the whole crowd, until there is a ‘rythme global, mouvement systématique’ [a single pulse, a systematic set of movements]37 that puts the entire crowd in a state of ‘délire’ [trance].38 Whilst remaining together, bodies begin to move in different ways, and slowly the crowd goes on a rampage of the town, pillaging and destroying property and people, as merchants and notables retreat home in fear. The narrator at this stage becomes a member of the procession, and leaves his philosophical register in favour of more vulgar modes of expression: ‘t’as pas à râler; c’est comme ça: j’ai pas pissé pour emmerder le monde’ [no need to gripe, I didn’t piss to piss everybody off ].39 And once the crowd has gained its full momentum, the sorceress arrives with her orders to pillage graves and piece together a (female) idol, causing the earth quite literally to ‘crache’ its ‘entrailles’. Thus the carnivalesque procession seems to have brought into immediate fruition the prophecies communicated by the elderly preacher, causing destruction and a reversal of nature’s decree in digging up dead bodies. The narrator is accompanied by a feminine figure named Aya. ‘Aya’ is both a common feminine name in the Arab world, and the word for ‘Quranic verse’, as well as for ‘sign’ — specifically a sign that is affirmative of divine force (the Quran lists natural phenomena like mountains or day and night amongst the signs of the divine, for example). In Talismano, Aya vomits during the course of the procession. The image of Aya as an ailing body suggests that such a carnivalesque procession deals a blow to the force of Quranic scripture, whilst the combined gesturing towards text and sickness calls to mind the assertion cited earlier which makes text a site of ‘vomissures’. There is a sense in which this moment is expressive of a bodily triumph over sacred scripture. Furthermore, the narrator asserts that ‘y a une haine de f lic; y a à discerner entre ceux qui de près couvent en leurs entrailles le geste et l’imagerie secrètement ruminées du f lic, et ceux qui sont tortionnaires par métier, raison sociale’ [cop hater. Not to confuse those who secretly fantasize about being cops with the card carriers who actually torture by profession].40 The narrator here makes a distinction between those who are ‘f lics’ [cops] by profession, practising methods of torture

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and bullying, and those who are ‘f lics’ by nature. He dismisses the professionals as operating merely on a social level (the implications being that this level is superficial), whilst he condemns those who bear the imprint of a ‘f lic’ disposition on their ‘entrailles’ [entrails]. The statement captures the inverted logic of the procession. Nothing is determined by the social order. All is of the body. It also touches on a certain Islamic logic of judgement, which decrees that attributes like wealth and social standing will not work in favour of an individual at the time of judgement. Instead, the individual will be judged on the merit of their good deeds, and their bodies will join in the act of testifying for or against them (for example a tongue used to slander others will complain to God of the bad deeds in which it was forced to partake: ‘Ye did not seek to hide yourselves, lest your hearing, your sight, and your skins should bear witness against you! But ye did think that God knew not many of  the  things that ye used to do!’.41 The logic of the suspension of the daily laws of time and morality that is attributed to the literary and the carnivalesque alike in Talismano is thus a logic of apocalypse and judgement. Through both writing and the carnivalesque, apocalypse is transformed from an eschatological moment deferred, until the end of the world as we know it, into a form of bodily self-expression that occurs at intervals within the frame of worldly time. This suggests that the monotheistic notions of apocalypse and judgement have also entered the realm of the body, functioning now in accordance with a bodily timescale as opposed to a divine one. It continues, however, to operate as an expression of excess, as something that ruptures the structures and logic of daily life, evoking the recurring compulsion towards something beyond daily rhythms. The procession is described as a ‘vacance du pouvoir, à permettre aux corps de s’exhiber’ libres’ [power vacuum, allowing bodies unbridled display].42 Indeed, the powers under threat are manifold. Not only does the procession f lout monotheistic teachings and drive home the city’s wealthy and powerful, but there are also repeated and indeterminate references to ‘colons’ [colonials]. The targeting of a variety of powerful elements in society both past and present gives the procession an indeterminate feel. The procession is joined by those who have disguised themselves in European clothing in order to sneak through European neighbourhoods undetected (a clear reference to resistance fighters, particularly in Algeria, who would enter European cities disguised as Europeans in order to plant bombs and drive out the French). In addition, the sight of bloodshed at the procession is likened to the sacrificial blood of animals slaughtered as part of a religious festival commemorating Abraham’s sacrificing of his son. The apparent lack of fixity to the meaning or purpose of the procession is further testimony to its bodily, chaotic nature. It is the spontaneous response to a preacher, and yet it commemorates anticolonialism, and bears the traces of an Islamic ritual that commemorates the story of Abraham. The myriad and fragmented religious and historical associations evoked by the narrator seem ultimately to mimic the f leeting and fragmentary nature of human memory, which is a nexus of associations. It is interesting to note, moreover, that the procession begins with the verbal teachings of a man, and is then taken over at the forefront by a sorceress. Speaking of a pagan goddess, the text claims that ‘elle a la corpulence mais non la voix’


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[[she is] impressively corpulent yet possessed of that fragile quavering voice],43 proposing a voice/body, male/female divide. The emphasis on the body as a source of meaning in Talismano leads to a fixation with the dynamic between male and female bodies and its impact on bodily logic. This dynamic is generally expressed in terms of the potency of the sexual, hence the orgy at the end of the procession suggesting a climactic opening onto excess. As in Meddeb’s novels Phantasia and Aya dans les villes, the text also mentions the Quranic story of Balqis and Suleiman (Solomon and the Queen of Sheba). The Quran presents the narrative as one where monotheism wins over polytheism. It also foregrounds the fact that King Solomon’s dominion extended over animals (with whom he could communicate) and other invisible beings, as well as an implicitly romantic encounter between Solomon and Balqis. The story begins when one of the King’s hoopoes disappears, returning to declare to the King: ‘I have compassed (territory) which thou hast not compassed, and I have come to thee from Saba with tidings true’ | I found (there) a woman ruling over them and provided with every requisite; and she has a magnificent throne. | ‘I found her and her people worshipping the sun besides God: Satan has made their deeds seem pleasing in their eyes, and has kept them away from the Path, — so they receive no guidance, —’ 44

Once the Queen is on her way to meet Solomon after he sends her a missive inviting her to denounce polytheism, he arranges for her throne to be transported to his palace instantaneously (by one of his invisible subjects possessing a super­ human speed) in order to dazzle her with divine miracles. The Queen is doubly amazed to see her throne in Solomon’s palace, and then to be asked to step onto a glass f loor which she mistakes for an expanse of water, only to find that it is firm. She declares on the spot: ‘O my Lord! I have indeed wronged. My soul: I do (now) submit (in Islam), with Solomon, to the Lord of the Worlds’.45 The story ends there in the Quran, and does not go on to mention that Solomon and Balqis marry. Unlike other Quranic accounts of polytheistic peoples accepting the message of monotheism, this particular narrative is charged with fairytale qualities and a general romantic energy. Meddeb’s account in Talismano strongly sexualizes the encounter between Soloman and Balqis. Focusing on Balqis, whom it terms a ‘figurine coranique’ [Koranic figurine],46 the text speaks of her ‘robe transparente’ [transparent robe] being dragged along a ‘parterre’ [f loor] de ‘cristal’ [crystal],47 transferring the quality of transparency to the Queen’s dress. Her awe of the palace leads her to ‘déclarer son amour à Sulaymân’ [declare her love to Sulaymân],48 rather than to submit to God. The text interprets the fact that she lifts up her dress (a fact mentioned in the Quran as a precaution against what she thinks is a surface of water) as a ‘signe à céder corps’ [sign of yielding the body].49 Religious sentiment is transformed into sensual love, a figurative practice that is common in Sufi literary expression, and Balqis’s feeling of spiritual epiphany is shifted onto a physical plain. The sense of having accessed meaning outside of oneself is expressed through sexual feeling. This idea is revisited in the final sentences of Talismano, where the narrator declares: ‘la féminité fécondera les lits foulés par la disponibilité mâle; et que cette nouvelle ingérance ajoute au corps divisé sa parcelle orpheline’ [the female will make fertile the beds

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tread upon by male readiness; and by this new suffusion may the divided body recover its orphaned other].50 Sexual impulse is presented in the story of Solomon and Sheba as an ultimate expression of encountering excess. Georges Bataille connects the sexual act with notions of excess in a way that is echoed by the manifestation of the sexual in the work of Meddeb. Joseph Libertson qualifies excess for Bataille as that ‘manifesting itself in the form of comportments irreducible to the necessity of self-preservation’.51 Libertson outlines the way in which, for Bataille, human survival is governed by notions of ‘utility’, of limiting activity to that which ensures survival. This is, however, a logic that is designed to be exceeded. This constitutes a means of affirming excess. ‘Chief ’ among comportments that exceed utility for Bataille ‘is sexual reproduction’,52 which is characterized by a sense of loss. It constitutes a ‘transfer’ of energy to the ‘impersonality of life’ [...] which has, for the pro­ genitor, the status of a disproportionately violent ‘perte sans profit’; a donation of life which exceeds the progenitor’s lifetime and may involve its immediate death.53

Thus the sexual act is one that exceeds Bataille’s logic of utility. For Bataille, human societies are arranged on the grounds of ‘prohibitions regarding death and sexuality’. These prohibitions are lifted on a day of ‘ fête’, where ‘that which was prohibited is permitted or even demanded’.54 Thus for Bataille, notions of excess are governed by erotic impulse. This is the logic that governs the carnivalesque procession of Meddeb’s Talismano, where an experience of the sacred is expressed in terms of a suspension of the norms and regulations that govern daily life, including those that are religiously prescribed. The procession follows the Bataillian logic which dictates that accessing divine excess is not a function of adhering to scriptural rules, but of overturning them. Following sexual impulse thus leads to an opening onto excess. Conclusion Meddeb’s Talismano, like Nancy’s L’Intrus, heavily foregrounds the roles of language and the body in opening onto a space of excess, and in interpreting that space. Moreover, it begins to demonstrate the potential of the literary to free monotheistic narratives and images from their canonical interpretations, subjecting these instead to interpretations governed by physical and artistic impulses. The fact that Meddeb’s fictional narratives are accompanied by theoretical work that insists on the role of literature in dismantling totalitarian monotheistic systems of thought means that they may be read as a form of social manifesto, inviting Muslim communities radically to rethink their engagement with sacred scripture, and the notion of the divine it promotes. This intention is borne out by Meddeb’s frequent media appear­ ances, where he debates with more conventionally reformist Muslims such as the Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan, who seeks only to alter legalistic interpretations of the Quran, and not to counter the juridical use made of sacred scripture altogether. Meddeb claims to pick up and continue natural vernacular trends that have been historically set in motion within the Muslim world. These have involved the


Body, Text, Excess

merging of Islamic narrative and ritual with local narrative and ritual, producing localized forms of engagement with sacred scripture, and a weakening of the hold of sacred scripture over communities. Yet the closeness of his work to that of Nancy that is demonstrated in this chapter shows that he is also drawing on post-theological European thought, and introducing this as an approach to sacred scripture. This is borne out by the sources of inspiration he himself cites, including Kant and Bataille. Whilst, therefore, Meddeb calls for a return to myriad vernacular takeovers of sacred scripture, he is also helping to globalize a mode of thinking associated more closely with Europe. Notes to Chapter 1 1. See article on ‘Incarnation’ in The Encyclopedia of Theology, ed. by Karl Rahner (London: Burns and Oats, 1975), pp. 690–99. Rahner describes hypostatic union as the official teaching of the church on incarnation, and defines it in the following terms on p. 693: ‘the eternal (and therefore pre-existent) Word (Logos)’ unites his nature with that of a human body created in time [...]. Consequently to one and the same person, the Logos, there belong two natures, without mixture and without separation; one and the same person is God and man. We can affirm of one and the same subject the realities of both natures, we can predicate of this one subject named on the basis of one of the natures, the characterisation of the other nature. 2. As suggested by the title of his essay La Déclosion in La Déconstruction du christianisme (Paris: Galilée, 2005)/Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. by Bettina Bergo, Gabril Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York/Fordham University Press, 2008). 3. Ibid., p. 56/p. 36. 4. Ibid., p. 127/p. 83. 5. Ibid., p. 11/p. 5. 6. Ibid., p. 12/p. 6. 7. Ibid., p. 96/p. 15. 8. Ibid., p. 56/p. 36. 9. Jean-Luc Nancy and Jean-Christophe Bailly, La Comparution: politique à venir (Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 1991), p. 53/‘La Comparution/The Compearance: From the Existence of “Com­ munism” to the Community of “Existence” ’, trans. by Tracey B. Strong, Political Theory, 20 (1992), 371–98 (p.373). 10. Nancy, L’Intrus, p. 35/L’Intrus trans. by Susan Hanson, , p. 10 [accessed on 3 October 2013]. 11. Ibid., p. 22/p. 5. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid., p. 13/p. 2. 14. Susan Hanson, ‘The One in the Other’, CR: The New Centennial Review, 2 (2002), 203–09 (p. 204). 15. Nancy, L’Intrus, p. 22/p. 5. 16. Ibid., p. 22/p. 6. 17. Ibid., p. 27/p. 7. 18. Meddeb, Abdelwahab, Face à l’islam: entretien mené par Philip Petit (Paris: Textuel, 2004), p. 152. 19. Ibid. 20. Ibid. 21. Ibid. 22. The Quran, 55:26–27, trans. by A. Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 23. Meddeb, Face à l’Islam, p. 113. 24. Arabic script is a combination of larger forms and smaller diacritical marks. These marks determine the short vowel sounds to accompany the letters. They can also be used to show grammatical declension, and are even used to show which letter is being pronounced out of

Body, Text, Excess


an array of multiple letters with the same basic form. Some letters share the same overall form but are distinguished from one another through the use of dots (placed on top or underneath the letter form in different quantities). For example, the following letter is pronounced ‘ba’: ‫ب‬. If, as follows, two dots are placed on top of the form rather than one dot underneath ‫ت‬, it is pronounced ‘ta’. 25. Meddeb, Face à l’Islam, p. 21. 26. Ibid., p. 22. 27. Ibid. 28. Abdelwahab Meddeb, Contre-prêches: chroniques (Paris: Seuil, 2006), p. 191. 29. Abdelwahab Meddeb, Talismano (Paris: Sindbad, 1987), p. 46/Talismano, trans. by Jane Kuntz (Champaign and London: Dalkey Archive, 2011), p. 42. 30. Ibid., pp. 218–19/p. 235. 31. Ibid., p. 45/p. 42. 32. Ibid., p. 46/p. 42. 33. Ibid. 34. Ibid., p. 46/p. 43. 35. Ibid., p. 70/p. 67. 36. Ibid., p. 70/p. 69. 37. Ibid. 38. Ibid. 39. Ibid., p. 78/p. 77. 40. Ibid. 41. The Quran, 41:22, trans. by A. Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 42. Meddeb, Talismano, p. 78/p. 77. 43. Meddeb, Talismano, p. 74/p. 72. 44. The Quran, 27: 22–24, trans. by A. Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 45. Quran (27:44), trans. by A. Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 46. Talismano, p. 204/p. 219. 47. Ibid., p. 204/p. 218. 48. Ibid. 49. Ibid. 50. Ibid., p. 244/p. 262. 51. Joseph Libertson, ‘Excess and Imminence: Transgression in Bataille’, MLN, 92 (1977), 1001–23 (p. 1004). 52. Ibid. 53. Ibid. 54. Ibid., p. 1008.

Chapter 2


Withdrawn Divine I The Blank Book in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s L’Enfant de sable and Amin Maalouf ’s Le Périple de Baldassare Introduction The previous chapter charted a designation of the literary as a textual opening onto a space of excess that takes the place of more qualified forms of the divine proposed by sacred scriptures. Meddeb and Nancy highlight fissures and lacunae in language and bodily experience, suggesting limits to all that may be understood and expressed in the world. These lacunae are merely evoked in literature, with no attempt made to fill or qualify them in the way that monotheistic discourse might. For Meddeb and Nancy, texts are born of the disjointed encounter between body, excess, and language, and the disjuncture between these three key elements is put forward as a refutation of monotheistic belief systems that attempt (falsely) to synthesize them. The novels discussed in this chapter also thematize the idea of personal appro­ priation of narratives from sacred scripture, and personalized experiences of the divine. Both Ben Jelloun’s L’Enfant de sable and Maalouf ’s Le Périple de Baldassare emerge from contexts where sacred scripture and strongly defined notions of divine will are taken up by public religious and political rhetoric and used to create collective religious identities. Both texts respond to this by suggesting that individual experiences of the world often lead to divergent means of digesting sacred narratives and of feeling the divine impact on human destiny. This is expressed in both novels through the motif of a blank or withdrawn book. The book motif represents an authority and authenticity that are commonly attributed to sacred texts, and the with­drawal of the book in both novels suggests an engagement with scripture and the divine that is removed from prescriptive theological modes of reading. The idea of the withdrawn book is discussed at length in Maurice Blanchot’s essays ‘Le Livre à venire’ [‘The Book to Come’] and ‘L’Absence du livre’ [‘The Absence of the Book’], which posit the Bible as the originary textual structure that haunts every other book. Behind every literary text lies sacred scripture. This is withdrawn and spectral, but nonetheless there, making all literary narrative a re-expression of sacred narrative, no matter how different its style or message. These ideas are instrumental to a reading of the personalized encounters with sacred narrative depicted in each of the novels as a move away from collective identity without complete loss of contact with scripture.


Withdrawn Divine I

There are considerable differences in the backgrounds and literary themes and styles of Maalouf and Ben Jelloun. The latter comes from a Muslim, Moroccan background. His array of novels, essays, and short stories often focus on contemporary figures of alienation and exile. These include migrant North African workers in France in La Plus Haute des Solitudes, unemployed youngsters desperate to leave Morocco in Partir, the overworked and underpaid within Morocco in L’Homme rompu, as well as elderly figures marginalized within their families, as in La Réclusion solitaire and Sur ma mère. Ben Jelloun’s novels address the social effects of corruption and economic stagnation in Morocco, often using interior monologues that focus the reader on the pressures that these place on characters. The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise in religious rhetoric within the Moroccan political sphere. Henry Munson makes the case that Moroccans were inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, as well as by disillusionment with the Marxist politics that had enjoyed some popularity amongst university students. This resulted in a political turn to religion as the solution to the country’s economic problems, and as an antidote to American hegemony.1 Ben Jelloun does not use his fiction to oppose any religiously inspired political groups openly, but he portrays characters who find no comfort in their rhetoric, or who seek alternative ways of connecting with religious narrative. Maalouf, on the other hand, is descended from a Lebanese family that branches into a variety of Christian denominations (as he explains in the autobiographical Origines [Origins]). Maalouf ’s immediate family are Catholic, whilst more distant relatives practise either Greek Orthodoxy or Protestantism, depending on the reli­ gious systems of education they followed. Maalouf himself advocates certain forms of humanist discourse as is evident in both his essays on identity and global culture Les Identités meurtrières [On Identity] and Le Dérèglement du monde [Disordered World], where he vaguely expresses the importance of keeping religion out of the public sphere. This desire to move away from strongly defined public religious identity is attrib­utable to the Lebanese Civil War, during which religious sectarianism played itself out violently in the country between the years 1975 and 1990. In the run up to the war, Halim Barakat makes the case that ‘Lebanon is composed of two con­tending religious communities which are roughly equal in number and strength’.2 The country is ‘half-Christian and half-Muslim, and each half is in turn sub­d ivided into several sects’.3 Moreover, ‘the most dominant cleavage in Lebanese society is religious, rather than tribal, regional, ethnic, or even economic’.4 This all contributes to making the community ‘mosaic’ rather than ‘plural’, the latter term implying a greater deal of social harmony, whilst the former suggests that com­munities who might be working in parallel in a balanced way still have ‘no con­sensus on fundamental issues’5 they face together. Maalouf is known to have left Lebanon in 1975 at the outbreak of the Civil War, and much of his work portrays characters that are formed by multiple religious and ethnic inf luences, which makes it impossible for them to be religiously characterized in any single way. His latest novel, Les Désorientés [The Disorientated Ones], explores the lives of a group of aging Lebanese friends who continue to be marked by religious and political divisions well after the War. In contrast to Ben Jelloun’s contemporary protagonists, who often seem to be microcosmic representations of the frustrated ordinary masses, Maalouf ’s

Withdrawn Divine I


protagonists are mostly historic figures who possess a certain talent or genius. These are sometimes based on real historic personalities (such as the Persian poet Omar Khayyam in Samarcande [Samarkand], the founder of Manichaeism in Les Jardins de lumière [Gardens of Light], and the medieval traveller Leo Africanus in Léon l’africain). Maalouf ’s fictional texts possess a linear narrative f luidity, and are saturated with personal and historical events, often involving geographic displacement, thereby giving the reader the impression that they have a panoramic view of a particular historical era. In both their fictional and non-fictional writings, Ben Jelloun and Maalouf demonstrate an attitude towards monotheistic religion that is one of responsibility (particularly towards its historic dimension) without evidence of any commitment to religious tenets. This duality is especially apparent in the non-fictional work of Ben Jelloun, for example in L’Islam expliqué aux enfants [Islam Explained]. Published in the wake of the attacks on New York in 2001, the text is part of an educational series aimed at children aged between ten and fifteen, and attempts to gloss aspects of Islamic history, as well as basic Islamic beliefs and terminology, including definitions of words like ‘jihad’, ‘fatwa’, and ‘sharia’. The author seeks to distance the violence of the attacks on New York from the ways in which Islam has been practised historically. The text is presented as a discussion between the author and his young daughter, where the author seeks to convince his daughter not to dispense with her Muslim identity. The fact that Ben Jelloun writes the text is indicative of a sense of pride and responsibility towards his religious heritage. The desire to dispel misconceptions about the religion occasionally surfaces in more literary texts. In a scene in La Nuit sacrée [The Sacred Night], where the female protagonist is circumcised by her sisters, for example, the text is careful to distance religion from the custom of female circumcision. The narrator claims: ‘j’appris aussi [...] que jamais l’islam ni aucune autre religion n’ont permis ce genre de massacre’ [I also learned that [...] neither Islam nor any other religion has ever permitted this kind of slaughter].6 Yet Carine Bourget asserts that Ben Jelloun’s L’Islam expliqué aux enfants fails in its aim to ‘foster a better understanding of Islam by (its) French readership’.7 Bourget highlights the way in which the text is guilty of putting forward the opinions of smaller sections of the religious community and suppressing more main­stream beliefs. For example, she claims that Ben Jelloun’s ‘assessment that the Quran does not prescribe women’s veiling [...] is in accordance with what a few scholars reinterpreting Islamic traditions have concluded, but it is not widely accepted’.8 Bourget also suggests that Ben Jelloun’s claim to have absolved himself of his five daily prayers, using a fatherly dispensation without acknowledging that this is problematic from a mainstream Islamic perspective, is not representative of the traditional Islamic view towards prescribed forms of worship. Moreover, examining his political views in the text, Bourget goes as far as to suggest that Ben Jelloun’s accounts of colonization are ‘conciliatory towards its assumed French readership’,9 portraying the ‘Arabs as very passive towards colonisation, thus writing off resistance movements such as those led by Abdelkader in Algeria and Abdelkrim in Morocco’.10 Bourget’s analysis combines a critique of Ben Jelloun’s theological


Withdrawn Divine I

and political stances (specifically on colonialism) in a way that suggests that an undermining of the tenets of his faith is conceived within an over-conciliatory political framework. Bourget’s critique therefore alludes to a sense in which Ben Jelloun’s theological position is politically informed and politically manifested. The legacy of monotheism here is thus one that is inseparable from geopolitical and social factors. Whilst Ben Jelloun seeks to explain and defend his religious heritage, he does not give a representative account of many of its tenets, nor does he personally adhere to these. He claims simply that, when it comes to religious belief, ‘je crois qu’il existe une spiritualité, quelque chose de mystérieux et de beau à la fois, et qui m’intimide beaucoup’[I believe there is spirituality, something that is both mysterious and beautiful that overawes me].11 He refuses, however, to conceive of this divine force in the terms attributed to it by Christianity (‘Dieu est Amour’ [God is love])12 or Islam (‘Dieu est Justice, Dieu est Vérité’ [God is justice, God is truth]),13 suggesting a desire to distance divinity from the monotheistic vocabulary and discourses that surround it. Ben Jelloun’s text thus outlines two distinct strands of thinking in his work. On the one hand, there is a (political) response to monotheistic discourse, to mono­theistic structures, laws, and history. On the other hand, there is a spiritual acknowledgement of the divine, suggesting Ben Jelloun’s Gnostic leanings. Ben Jelloun finds no language to express or define this sense of the divine, offering instead examples of language that does not capture it adequately, and thereby suggest­ing the problematic nature of the relationship between language and the divine. Maalouf ’s work does not openly take up the cause of any particular religion as does that of Ben Jelloun. There are instances in Les Identités meurtrières where the author challenges contemporary visions of Islam as an inherently violent and intolerant religion, by suggesting that a family from a religious minority like his own could not have survived for centuries in a Muslim heartland if this were the case. Chief ly, however, his work is concerned with highlighting a time-honoured overlap and resonance between a variety of religious discourses, and undermining notions of religious polarity and distinctiveness as defining characteristics in the relationship between East and West. This is particularly evident in Maalouf ’s first publication, the historical narrative Les Croisades vues par les Arabes [The Crusades through Arab Eyes], where Maalouf ’s occasional focus on the atrocities suffered by Christian Arabs at the hands of their invading co-religionists serves to dispel some of the most basic misconceptions about East−West cultural and religious polarization. Ben Jelloun’s widely explored novel, L’Enfant de sable, tells the story of a girl born in an indeterminate period in colonial Morocco to parents who already have eight daughters. Intent upon having a son and heir who will give him status in a society where sons are valued more highly than daughters, the father decides in advance of the birth that whatever the sex of the baby, it will be a son. The midwife is rewarded for keeping quiet about the false announcements, and the determined father sacrifices a piece of his little finger during a public circumcision ceremony. The child, named Ahmed, has her chest bound as a little girl, is scolded for crying

Withdrawn Divine I


when taunted by the rough boys of the neighbourhood rather than fighting back, as well as for using henna on her hands like her sisters, and is ultimately banned from entering the women’s baths with her mother on the grounds that she is a growing boy who must no longer be exposed to women’s nakedness. She receives a male education and becomes a tyrannical male presence for her sisters, before strong female physical impulses and a sense of psychological schism drive her into a state of solitude from which she emerges a woman: Zahra. Shedding all the vestiges of masculine identity, she leaves home with a strong sense of sexual awakening, and the text offers a series of alternative narratives presenting differing accounts of the exact details of where she goes, whom she encounters, and what exactly becomes of her. As Eva Corredor14 suggests, the narrative itself vies for attention with the story being narrated. The story is told in the first instance by a storyteller in a market place who sits on a mat (reminiscent of a prayer mat) and reads from a book, which he claims is the diary of the protagonist. His listeners return on multiple occasions to hear more and more of the story, but the storyteller dies before he has completed his narrative. One listener steps out of the audience, claiming to know the rest better than the storyteller himself, and exposes the storyteller as a fraud by showing his book to be a cheap edition of the Quran, and not Ahmed/Zahra’s diary. A series of storytellers proceed to displace one another by claiming greater authority until the whole band disperse, leaving three listeners who retreat to a cafe and each tell each other a version of the end of the story of Ahmed/Zahra, based on alleged personal encounters with one of its characters. Thus the storytelling process proves as worthy of attention as the story itself. The fact that audiences grow smaller, narrative possibilities increase, and the book motif fades with each storyteller until no book is being used at all, highlights a narrative process that progressively moves away from the notion of a single authoritative narrative for all towards something that is more f luid and varied in accordance with local experience. Personal experience of the story takes precedence over the possession of the story as script. The distinction between speakers and listeners is blurred, as ultimately every listener lays claim to the story and offers a version in turn. This move away from the book in literary contexts is subtly paralleled with a move away from a literal approach to sacred books and sacred spaces. Amin Maalouf ’s Le Périple de Baldassare is stylistically far removed from the narrative layering of Ben Jelloun’s text, offering an uncomplicated first-person account of the protagonist’s travels. Set mainly in the seventeenth century, it chronicles the adventures of a wealthy Genoese merchant, Baldassare, whose family have been based in the Ottoman town of Gibelet (Byblos in Mount Lebanon) since the Crusades, as he travels around the world in search of a much-coveted book. It is 1665, and rumours of an imminent apocalypse based on biblical prophecies are emerging from many religious sects and denominations around the world and spreading far and wide. The secret of salvation from atrocities to come is said to be found in a book called Le Dévoilement du nom caché, dubbed by those who seek it as Le Centième nom. According to the Islamic tradition, God has ninety-nine names or attributes which help humanity to understand aspects of his multi-faceted nature, and which can be used to invoke him in times of need. Le Périple takes up


Withdrawn Divine I

an existing notion that there is an ultimate hundredth name which, if invoked, would save its utterer specifically from the horrors of the impending apocalypse. The somewhat sceptical merchant comes into possession of a copy of the book, which he is almost immediately embarrassed into selling on to a loyal customer before he has had a chance to read it. His compelling curiosity about the text begins to erode his scepticism and leads him to make a journey in the hope of retrieving it. Initially, he and his companions are meant to go only as far as Constantinople, where they hope to find the book. Amongst them is a local widow whose husband has been missing for six years, and who hopes to obtain bureaucratic evidence of her husband’s death from Constantinople whilst they are there. Failure to achieve either objective propels them on to other cities in the Ottoman Empire and beyond. One by one they are forced to leave each other behind in various places, until Baldassare is alone. Copies of the Centième Nom continually elude him throughout his travels, forcing him to travel on further. The diplomat who buys Baldassare’s copy drowns at sea, and whilst Baldassare sits in the home of a book collector who goes to fetch his copy of the same book, the house and all the books in it catch fire. He is finally allowed to access the copy of an Englishman in London who wants the Arabic to be translated. He finds, however, that every time he opens the book, a grey cloud invisible to everyone else descends on it and prevents him from reading. His efforts are finally interrupted by the outbreak of the Great Fire of London. Whilst he escapes with the book, the grey cloud never lifts, and ultimately he decides to shelve the text for good. He never comes to learn the hundredth name, but he does learn that the year 1666 does not bring with it the end of the world, and that indeed for him it heralds a new beginning, as he ends his journey by settling in his ancestral home of Genoa and marrying a local woman. The discussion of these two novels will focus on the fact that they maintain a concept of the divine, whilst they distance it from monotheistic language, looking for new and personalized ways of intuiting and expressing the divine. The motif of the absent book in both novels acts as an expression for the desire to distance fixed and prescriptive inscriptions of the divine, and to replace these with more personalized idioms. The texts highlight the fact that language cannot underpin the divine, fully conveying it with a self-assured sense of fixity. The futility of articulating the divine in a language that is constantly moving, fissuring, and refracting itself to reveal new meanings suggests that, irrespective of what divine reality might be, human experience of it will always be f luid and indeterminate. I will first offer an outline of Blanchot’s understanding of the relationship of literature to sacred text before using this to unpack the motifs of blank and withdrawn books in Ben Jelloun’s L’Enfant and Maalouf ’s Le Périple respectively. The Sacred Origins of Blanchot’s ‘Livre’ In ‘Le Livre à venir’ [‘The Book to Come’],15 Blanchot focuses on the relationship of the concept of the book to poetic space, paying particular attention to Mallarmé’s ref lections on the subject of an ultimate poetic text that, once visualized, is never written, but determines all that is written. All literary expression is in quest of it,

Withdrawn Divine I


but does not reach it, and thus remains outside of it, but evokes it nonetheless. In ‘L’Absence de livre’ [‘The Absence of the Book’],16 Blanchot moves on to a more explicit connection between the idea of a withdrawn book and sacred scripture. He sketches out an understanding of the origins of language that is based on Kabbalistic thinking around the different stages in the history of the Torah. Blanchot is interested in the fact that the Torah is believed to have existed in written form, before an oral transmission, which is then reinscribed, suggesting that nothing precedes the written word. He argues that the originary writing is illegible, and is only rendered intelligible ‘après et par la brisure, après et par la rupture de la décision orale’ [after they [the written texts] are broken, and because they are broken — after and because of the resumption of the oral decision].17 The oral phase that separates two written phases is a necessary stage that introduces ‘rapports de médiation et d’immédiation qui assurent le discours, puis la dialectique où à son tour la loi va se dissoudre’ [the relations of mediation and immediation that guarantee discourse, and then the dialectic, where the law in its turn will dissolve].18 Sacred text becomes inscribed in such a way as to allow for dialectical interference and questioning. The possibilities of interpretation are endless, and could lead to conclusions that render the text and its meanings unrecognizable to its writers and its earliest readers. Blanchot asserts that this dialectic principle could even lead to the dissolution of the law, one of the most characteristic features of monotheism. Thus constant reformulation and reinterpretation of revealed scripture could result in an ultimate move away from its most characterizing features. The notion of the withdrawal of an originary structure leads, then, paradoxically to an unfaithful loyalty to it. The fact that it is maintained as originary suggests a sense of loyalty towards it. The fact that it is deemed withdrawn, however, means that it can no longer dictate the direction of subsequent structures, which may diverge dramatically from the original. Finally, the strongest connection between the book as a poetic space and its sacred origins is made where Blanchot asserts that: Le livre commence avec la Bible où le logos s’inscrit en loi. Le livre ici atteint son sens indépassable, incluant ce qui de toutes parts le déborde et ne saurait être dépassé. [...] La Bible ne nous offre pas seulement le plus haut modèle du livre, l’exemple à jamais insubstituable; la Bible détient tous les livres, fussentils les plus étrangers à la révélation, au savoir, à la poésie, à la prophétie, à la proverbialité bibliques, parce qu’elle détient l’esprit du livre; les livres qui suivent sont toujours contemporains de la Bible. [The book begins with the Bible in which the logos is inscribed as law. Here the book attains its unsurpassable meaning, including what exceeds its bounds on all sides and cannot be gotten past. [...] The Bible not only offers us the preeminent model of the book, a forever unparalleled example, it also encompasses all books, no matter how alien they are to biblical revelation, knowledge, poetry, prophesy, and proverbs, because it holds in it the spirit of the book. The books that follow the Bible are always contemporaneous with it.]19

Blanchot designates sacred text as the originator of literary text, even when it is not recognized as such. Before every poetic utterance, there lies a silent theological antecedent that connects it with religious space. Literary expression is ultimately always biblical, no matter how far it seems to stray from the Bible. The literary here


Withdrawn Divine I

straddles the realms both of the oral and of the inscribed. By offering divergent angles of illumination on the sacred text, the literary fulfils the dialectical function of the oral, which is to break up the written and to endow it with meaning. The literary is also inscribed, however, and is therefore open to dialectic interception. I will suggest that through the motif of the vanishing book, both Maalouf and Ben Jelloun attempt to write texts that are expansive, ref lecting notions of the expansive language of the book in Blanchot and also challenging notions of narrative telos. This undermining of narrative eschatology is presented also as an opening up of the theological, representing its f luidity and versatility. The move seems not to undermine revealed text, but to wish to free it from ephemeral and politicized vocabularies that restrict its f low of meaning, as well as its f low in creative directions. The motif of the vanishing book thus becomes a metaphor for an expansive allegorization of revealed text. With the undoing of fixed and determinate juridical and historic meaning surrounding revealed scripture comes the undoing of fixed notions of the divine. The emphasis in both novels is not on the divine itself, but on language as f leeting, fissuring, and dynamic, and therefore on the difficulty of finding a language that concretizes concepts of the divine. The Withdrawn Book in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s L’Enfant de sable In this section I will chart the move in L’Enfant away from the book as an essential part of the storytelling process, and the ways in which this can be construed as a simultaneous exploration of a move away from readings of sacred scripture as a legally authoritative text. I will examine the fact that the protagonist’s oscillation between gender identities is a means of foregrounding tension between different forms of language and discourse. These are heavily gendered in the novel, and a protagonist who straddles both feminine and masculine identity allows for oppositional discursive traits to converge. Thus Ahmed/Zahra attempts to synthesize discourses that are fixed and f luid, sacred and profane, collective and personal. From the first moment of its appearance in L’Enfant, the book is a medium that attempts to withdraw itself, so that, whilst it forms the basis of a narrative, it is no longer being read closely for its contents. The first reference made to a book in Ben Jelloun’s novel is by the first storyteller, who sits before his audience on a rug, and tells them that the book he is holding is the protagonist’s diary, given to him by the protagonist himself: Le secret est là, dans ces pages, tissé par des syllabes et des images. Il me l’avait confié juste avant de mourir. Il me l’avait fait jurer de ne l’ouvrir que quarante jours après sa mort, le temps de mourir entièrement, quarante jours de deuil pour nous et de voyage dans les ténèbres de la terre pour lui. Je l’ai ouvert la nuit du quarante et unième jour. J’ai été inondé par le parfum du paradis, un parfum tellement fort que j’ai failli suffoquer. J’ai lu la première phrase, et je n’ai rien compris. J’ai lu le deuxième paragraphe et je n’ai rien compris. J’ai lu toute la première page et je fus illuminé. Les larmes de l’étonnement coulaient toutes seules sur mes joues. Mes mains étaient moites; mon sang ne tournait pas normalement. Je sus alors que j’était en possession du livre rare, le livre du secret, enjambé par une vie briève et intense, écrit par la nuit de la longue

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épreuve, gardé sous des grosses pierres et protégé par l’ange de la malédiction [...] Vous ne pouvez y accéder sans traverser mes nuits et mon corps. Je suis ce livre. Je suis devenu le livre du secret; j’ai payé de ma vie pour le lire. Arrivé au bout, après des mois d’insomnie, j’ai senti le livre s’incarner en moi, car tel est mon destin. Pour vous raconter cette histoire, je n’ouvrirai même pas ce cahier. [The secret was there, in those pages, woven out of syllables and images. He entrusted it to me just before he died. He made me swear not to open it until forty days after his death, long enough to allow him to die completely. Forty days of mourning for us and of journeying through the darkness of the earth for him. I opened it on the night of the forty-first day. I was overwhelmed by perfume. I read the first sentence and understood nothing. I read a paragraph and understood nothing. I read the whole of the first page and was illuminated. [...] Tears of astonishment came to my eyes; my heart pounded. I was in possession of a rare book, a book containing a secret, spanning a brief, intense life, written through the night of a long ordeal, hidden under large stones and protected by the angel of malediction [...] You can gain access to it only by traversing my nights and my body. I am that book; I have paid with my life to read its secret. Having reached the end, after months of sleepless nights, I felt the book become embodied within me, for such is my aim. To tell you his story, I will not even open this book.]20

The final part of the passage, which refers to notions of self-sacrifice and a bodily incarnation of text, as well as the storyteller’s insistence that the book may only be reached through his own body, is strongly evocative of the Christological concepts of self-sacrifice and incarnation. It also calls to mind similar beliefs in coded language accessible only through interpretation and self-annihilation amongst Sufi mystics. The medieval Sufi poet Al Hallâj, for example, was executed in the twelfth century by the Abbasid regime for blasphemous utterances born out of a sense of having dissolved his essence into that of God. Amongst these are the well-known assertion ‘I am the Truth’, ‘the Truth’ being one of the ninety-nine names of God in Islam, thus making his statement a claim to divinity. The storyteller’s final assertion that he will not open his book is echoed in François Dupeyron’s film Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du coran, in which an elderly Muslim grocer passing on his wisdom to his adolescent Jewish protégé constantly asserts the authority of his wisdom by saying ‘Je sais ce qui est dans mon coran’ [I know what is in my Quran], without ever being seen to consult the Quranic text. This is clearly intended as an allegorization of the sacred text, transforming it from a literal book that holds together inscriptions of a prescribed law and wisdom into a more abstract, intuitive form of wisdom. From its very first appearance in the novel, then, the book appears as a selfeffacing medium. The storyteller’s claim that he has ingested the contents of the book, which, upon his death, is revealed to be a cheap edition of the Quran, reso­ nates with Meddeb’s advocacy of Ibn Arabi’s advice ‘sois coran en toi-même’ [be a Quran in yourself ].21 For Meddeb, this involves internalizing the Quran in such a way as to allow for its contents to become mingled with an individual’s experience, producing an individualized understanding of the sacred text. The approach is evocative of Blanchot’s understanding of sacred text as the originator of all poetic expression. Before taking up the story himself, the second storyteller exclaims of


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the first: ‘c’est curieux, il regardait les versets, et lisait le journal d’un fou, victime de ses propres illusions. Bravo! Quel courage, quel détournement!’ [It’s very peculiar — he looks at the verses and reads the diary of a madman, a victim of his own illusions. Bravo! What courage, what deception!].22 This consolidates the idea that the literary has a sacred provenance in a way that both favours and undermines the theological. On the one hand, the sacred text is somewhat degraded in this arrangement, firstly through the detail that it is a cheap copy, and secondly by the fact that the verses in it are suppressed or overlooked, and that it is reduced to the status of a storyteller’s prop. The story of Ahmed/Zahra is deemed to be of greater interest and importance than the sacred verses. On the other hand, however, by claiming to have derived the story from the book in his possession, the storyteller creates a connection between sacred text and the literary. There is an implication here that this story is subtly derived from the Quran, calling to mind Blanchot’s understanding of all books being derived from the Bible. In terms of context, it is the local understanding of the Quranic laws of inheritance that shapes Ahmed/ Zahra’s destiny in the first instance. Beyond this, however, there is a sense that the Quran is being allegorized, interpreted, retold in the story of Ahmed/Zahra, rather than completely effaced or supplanted. By overlaying the Quranic text with the story of Ahmed/Zahra, the storyteller is suggesting that the literary extends from and is a feature of sacred scripture, offering new and unexpected angles for its contemplation. The diary of Ahmed/Zahra as represented by the first storyteller offers a taxonomy of the spatial qualities of different types of language. Encounters with different types and registers of language are described in terms of a physical experience. For example, Ahmed/Zahra describes the feminine banter in the women’s communal baths as a mist that moves around him: Les mots et les phrases fusaient de partout et, comme la pièce était fermée et sombre, ce qu’elles disaient était comme retenu par la vapeur et restait suspendu au-dessus de leurs têtes. Je voyais des mots monter lentement et cogner contre le plafond humide. Là, comme des poignées de nuage, ils fondaient au contact de la pierre et retombaient en gouttelettes sur mon visage. [Words and sentences f lowed on every side, and since the room was dark and enclosed, they seemed to be suspended in the steam above the women’s heads. I saw some words slowly rise and hit the damp ceiling. There they melted in contact with the stone and fell back on my face as drops of water.]23

Feminine gossip is also a source of words that can be creative, and others that can be arousing. For example, Ahmed/Zahra is fascinated by certain words, which he strings together to make phrases: ‘Il y avait des mots qui tombaient souvent plus et plus vite que d’autres, comme par exemple: la nuit, le dos, les seins, le pouce ..., à peine prononcés, je les recevais en pleine figure’ [A few words fell more often and more quickly than others, like, for example, ‘night,’ ‘back,’ ‘breasts,’ “thumb” — scarcely had they been spoken when they dripped in my face].24 With these words, Ahmed/Zahra makes ‘la nuit le soleil sur le dos dans un couloir où le pouce de l’homme mon homme dans la porte du ciel le rire’ [at night the sun on my back in a corridor where the man’s thumb my man in the gate of heaven laughter].25

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The sentence is the product of a literary impulse, inspired by the language of feminine space. It is interesting to note that the sentence does not include any verbs. By contrasting words like ‘nuit’ and ‘soleil’, ‘couloir’ and ‘ciel’, Ahmed/ Zahra creates an (elemental) sense of movement between different times of day, and between interior and exterior spaces. Any use of verbs in the sentence, which would have to be conjugated, would force the sentence into a temporal framework, thus historicizing it by relating it to a present moment. Without verbs, the phrase is endowed with a timeless quality. These literary musings are punctuated by less desirable mundane imperatives, like ‘ “l’eau est brûlante ..., donne moi un peu de ton eau froide ...” ’ [‘the water is hot ..., Give me some of your cold water’],26 for example. Such phrases are of no interest to Ahmed/Zahra. He/she is, however, fascinated by the erotic vocabulary, whispered in hushed tones amongst the women. Feminine language is shown to be oral, versatile, and multidimensional, with the potential to be profane, mundane, and literary, all at once. Moreover, the forbidden nature of coded words whispered in hushed tones gives it a certain sanctity in the Bataillean sense, according to which anything pertaining to the sexual act (an act which Bataille does not deem a necessary part of self-preservation) is an incursion into sacred territory. It is a vocabulary that is forbidden in any other context, and emerges in situations of excess, where common nakedness in an exclusively feminine space allows for use of a transgressive language. This feminine language is juxtaposed with the language of revealed text, which in turn is associated with masculine space. Ahmed/Zahra’s diary seems to suggest that the mosque is a masculine space, and that the sacred language used there is the language of men. Instead of falling down to his level as the women’s language does, this language forces him to move: ‘c’était moi qui montait les [the Quranic phrases] rejoindre’ [I rose to join them].27 The Arabic letters inscribed on the mosque walls, conveying Quranic verses, help him to climb up a mosque pillar, from where he goes on a tour of the ceiling, ending up back where he started: Je m’accrochais au Alif, et me laissais tirer par le Noun qui me déposait dans les bras du Ba. J’étais ainsi pris par toutes les lettres qui me faisait faire le tour du plafond et me ramenait en douceur à mon point de départ en haut de la colonne. [I clung to the alif and let myself be pulled by the nun, which laid me in the arms of the ba. Thus I was taken, by all the letters, on a tour of the ceiling, and brought gently back to my starting point at the top of the column.]28

The recurring image of straight vertical shapes (the Arabic alif [‫ ]ا‬is a vertical straight line, whilst the passage also features a column) takes on a phallic quality that emphasizes the masculine nature of the space. The sense of solidity attributed here to alphabetical forms calls to mind Meddeb’s understanding of such forms as almost geological formations that outlive the meanings with which they are endowed by the rise and fall of different civilizations, as discussed in Chapter 1. The fact that the solidity of the shapes is juxtaposed here with Ahmed’s sense of freedom to move through them serves to create a similar sense of tension between their rigidity and f lux. The second storyteller narrates an incident where the protagonist writes a small


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addendum to a Quranic verse in his diary. To the verse ‘ “Nous appartenons à Dieu et à lui nous retournerons” ’ [‘We belong to god and we shall return to him’] he adds ‘ “si je le veux” ’ [‘if I wish’].29 This comes at a time when the protagonist has retired from the world in order to redefine the parameters of his identity, and the diary entry that follows demonstrates a blurring of the boundaries between personal and sacred histories. Ahmed/Zahra attempts to rethink his identity outside socially constructed gender markers, according to which ‘être femme est une infirmité naturelle dont tout le monde s’accommode’ [to be a woman is a natural infirmity and every woman gets used to it], whilst ‘être homme est une illusion et une violence que tout justifie et privilégie’ [to be a man is an illusion, an act of violence that requires no justification].30 Amongst the facts that weigh him down and prevent him from soaring to the heights of solitude for refuge are his ‘corps’ [body], his ‘voix’ [voice], his ‘poitrine’ [chest], his ‘regard’ [look], his ‘asthme’ [asthma], his ‘kif ’ [weed], and also the ‘livre sacré’ [sacred book], the ‘parole dite dans la grotte et cette araignée qui fait barrage et protège’ [those words spoken in the cave and this spider that forms a barrier and protects].31 The list presents an odd mixture of factors, suggesting both physical and spiritual constraints. What is particularly intriguing is the way in which Ahmed expresses the latter. The religious narrative to which he alludes is one where the Prophet and his closest companion, whilst escaping the persecution they endured in Mecca to go to Medina for safety, are followed on their way by Meccans who wish to capture them. They seek refuge in a cave, the entrance to which is instantly blocked by a spider spinning a web. On the verge of looking inside the cave, their pursuers see the web, and assume that it has been there for a long time, and that the Prophet could not have entered the cave in the preceding moments and left the web undisturbed. In this way, the Prophet and his companion are saved. By incorporating this narrative into the summary of his own situation, Ahmed/Zahra demonstrates an attempt at reconciling personal and Quranic narrative. Stuck between Mecca and Medina, the Prophet’s experience calls to mind that of Ahmed (whose name is a common variation on Muhammad), who finds himself in a position of limbo and isolation. In the process of switching his masculine persona to a feminine one, Ahmed/Zahra attempts to subject the masculine forms of sacred language to feminine modes of linguistic f lexibility. The text thus identifies two linguistic spheres endowed with different qualities. One is literary, and is almost profane in a Bataillean sense, where the erotic impulse is an excess. The other is sacred in a traditional religious sense where, in opposition to Bataille, decrees and proscriptions are to be upheld as part of a commitment to the divine. Through Ahmed/Zahra, the text questions the extent to which these are mutually exclusive, and experiments with linguistic expressions where the two are reconciled. The outcome is somewhat irresolute, and is perhaps particularly displeasing from the perspective of the more rigid sphere. The listeners following the account of the first storyteller often express their scepticism about the truth of what is being narrated, and repeatedly ask the storyteller to refer to the book from which it is allegedly taken. The storyteller affirms that: ‘dans le livre, c’est un espace blanc, des pages nues laissées ainsi en suspens, offertes à la liberté du lecteur, à vous!’ [[in the book is] a blank space left for the reader to fill

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in as he will].32 Such suggestions of inconclusiveness create a sense of worry amongst the listeners who muse: ‘sommes-nous capable de l’inventer? Pourrions-nous nous passer du livre?’ [Are we capable of inventing it? Could we give up the book?].33 A book is needed to establish a sense of eschatological conclusiveness, as well as a sense of truth. The listeners take the storyteller to task about the truthfulness of his narrative: ‘nous verrons bien si cette histoire correspond à la vérité ou si tu as tout inventé pour te jouer de notre temps’ [then we’ll see whether this story corresponds to the truth or whether you’ve made it all up just to waste our time].34 Whilst the storyteller responds with a defiant confidence that ‘vous êtes libres de croire ou de ne pas croire à cette histoire’ [you are free to believe or not to believe this story],35 he nonetheless turns to his book and reads a phrase that contains the listeners’ word ‘vérité’ in it: ‘il est une vérité qui ne peut pas être dite’ [there is a truth that cannot be told].36 The overlap in vocabulary used by the listeners and contained in the book suggests that the book is there to answer their needs, to reassure them that that which they seek is inscribed within it. In repeating their word, the book also undermines its independent authoritativeness, suggesting that it is f lexible, its contents bending to accommodate their points of view. In this way, the book is both necessary and obsolete. This need for a book to lend authority to the story is not erased by the discovery that the first storyteller’s book is fraudulent, and does not contain what he had claimed it did. The second storyteller is still in need of a book to continue the tale, calling out to the audience that ‘le journal d’Ahmed, c’est moi qui l’ai!’ [I am the one who has Ahmed’s diary].37 Yet this storyteller claims to have acquired the diary by stealing it at the time of the protagonist’s death, whilst the first storyteller claims to have been entrusted with it by the protagonist himself. Already there is a decline in the degree of the traditional authority and trustworthiness of the storyteller. The second storyteller claims further that he is telling the story not from a position ‘sur un tapis ou sur un nuage mais sur une couche épaisse de mots et de phrases’ [not on a carpet or on a cloud, but on a thick layer of colourful musical words and sentences].38 The reference to a cloud here calls to mind the image of women’s words as an ethereal mist, and suggests that, in opposition to this, the ‘couche épaisse’ [thick layer] of ‘mots’ [words] and ‘phrases’ [phrases] matches the more solidly inscribed revealed text of masculine space. Further on in his narrative, however, the storyteller brings the image of his story closer to that of feminine language: Cette histoire fit le tour du pays et du temps. Elle nous parvient aujourd’hui quelque peu transformée. N’est-ce pas le destin des histoires qui circulent et coulent avec l’eau des sources les plus hautes? Elles vivent plus longtemps que les hommes et embellissent les jours. [This story has travelled through many countries and many times. It comes to us today a little transformed. Is it not the destiny of stories that circulate and f low with water from the highest sources? They live longer than men and embellish the days.]39

This shift in perspectives on narrative follows the course of Ahmed’s own shift from a masculine to a feminine identity. As Ahmed begins to get closer to the


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femi­n ine, so the narrative begins to resemble more f luid feminine discourse. This is enhanced by the increase in unannounced shifts in positions of narrative focalization. Whereas the previous storyteller had inserted openly f lagged readings from Ahmed’s diary into his own third-person narrative, rendered distinguishable in the text through use of paragraph indentation, the second storyteller moves more subtly between his own perspective and that of Ahmed, and includes letters addressed to the protagonist, thus addressing him in the second-person narrative also. The closely woven multiple narrative voices of the second narrator’s account suggest a fissuring of a master narrative voice so closely associated with the book. There is a sense here that the storyteller is gradually leading his listeners away from the rigidly structured authoritativeness of the book to more f luid and subtle dialogic modes of narration. It is interesting to note that this move is one that echoes Quranic shifts in narra­ tive perspective. Neal Robinson outlines the ways in which the ‘implied speaker’ of the Quran (the narrative voice attributed to the divine) features constant shifts between the pronouns ‘He’ and ‘We’. Robinson lists a series of verses paired up in accordance with the similarity of their content, but distinguished from each other by variant use of ‘He’ and ‘We’. For example, verse 5:44 states ‘We sent down the Torah’, whilst verse 3:3 reads ‘He sent down the Torah’. Robinson refutes the idea put forward by other scholars of the Quran that these statements are not from the same speaker (some argue, for example, that where the pronoun ‘We’ occurs, it is the voice of the angels describing the way in which they carry out God’s command). Instead, Robinson upholds the idea that there is only one implied speaker in the text, who uses different pronouns at different times. Robinson uses Roman Jakobson’s notions on linguistics and poetics to describe the different functions that these changes in pronoun might have: Jakobson states that verbal communication may be primarily expressive, conative or cognitive. Expressive communication centres on the speaker; conative com­ munication centres on the addressee; and cognitive communication centres on the message. The Qur’anic discourse moves to and fro between these three functions. When the speaker employs oaths or designates himself as ‘We’ or ‘I’, the function of the discourse is expressive. When the speaker employs the vocative particle ‘O’, refers to the addressee as ‘thou’ or ‘you’, or issues commands, the function of the discourse is conative [...] finally, when the speaker refers to himself as ‘He’, or ‘Allah’, or mentions one or more of his names, the function of the discourse is cognitive.40

What seems to be the fragmentation of a singular master narrative voice turns out to be a means of reinforcing its authority. The voice is refracted into a multiplicity of pronoun positions that also maintain their sense of wholeness. This is a discourse that features the rigid and hegemonic qualities of masculine discourse along with the f luidity of position associated with feminine discourse. It succeeds in bringing together linguistic features associated with both masculine and feminine language as it is perceived in L’Enfant (where men are featured congregationally chanting the same words in unison, whilst women’s language is spontaneous, varied, and moves in many directions). A certain balance is required in order for the language to be infinite and expansive, and to reach beyond itself in a way that is ‘universal’. The

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novel attempts to recreate this balance between masculine and feminine discourses through the journey of Ahmed/Zahra, and demonstrates the difficulty of finding a balanced mode of expression. Mustapha Marrouchi41 identifies parallels between the language used in L’Enfant and the medieval Muslim philosopher Ibn Hazm’s thinking on the Quranic journey between the two imperatives of ‘iqra’ (meaning ‘read’ in Arabic, the first Quranic word revealed) and ‘qul’ (‘tell’ or ‘say’ in Arabic, an imperative repeated often in the Quran). The transition between the two imperatives suggests that the Quran is to be read and then uttered in context. The progressive way in which the means of narrating Ahmad/Zahra’s story change throughout L’Enfant ref lects this move towards an uttering of the Quran in context. The novel explores the idea that this could lead to the formation of utterances that do not resemble the original. To return to the second storyteller’s mention of Ahmed/Zahra’s daring alteration of a Quranic verse, this may be seen as an attempt to gauge the readiness of his audience to move away from the book, since Ahmed literally deviates from what is in the ultimate book. Shortly before this incident, the storyteller claims that he will now ‘ferme ici le livre’ [close the book here] and ‘ouvre mon Cœur et appelle ma raison’ [open up my heart and appeal to my reason],42 preparing his listeners for a move away from the book and towards something that he calls reason, but which is ultimately imagination and intuition. This, once again, betrays a desire to please. It ref lects a certain prevalent rigid dichotomy between religion and reason, which dictates that a move away from one is a move towards the other. What the storyteller is in fact evoking is a space between the two that eludes the prescriptive nature of both, offering a means of escaping the rigid nature of revealed text without needing to suppress the spiritual and the intuitive altogether. The storyteller notes the day after the incident, however, that the number of his listeners has dwindled: ‘Je sais pourquoi certains ne sont pas revenus ce matin: ils n’ont pas supporté la petite hérésie que s’est permise notre personage’ [I know why some did not come back this morning: they could not bear the minor heresy that our character allowed himself ].43 Ultimately, this storyteller, like the first one, dies: Le conteur est mort de tristesse. On l’a trouvé près d’une source d’eau tarie. Il serrait contre sa poitrine un livre, le manuscrit trouvé à Marrakech et qui était le journal intime d’Ahmed/Zahra [...] quant au manuscrit, il brûla avec les habits du vieux conteur. On ne saura jamais la fin de cette histoire. Et pourtant, une histoire est faite pour être racontée jusqu’au bout. [The storyteller died of a broken heart; his body was found near a dried-up spring. He was clutching a book to his breast — the manuscript found at Marrakesh, Ahmed-Zahra’s private journal [...] as for the manuscript, it went up in f lames with the old storyteller’s clothes. We shall never know the end of this story. And yet a story is written to be told to the end.]44

The storyteller’s sadness could be seen as an empathetic one. He dies after narrating a situation in which Ahmed/Zahra is trapped in an eternity where he is haunted by regrets and sad memories. The storyteller too becomes aff licted with sadness and death, blurring the dimensions of the story by conf lating his own destiny with that of Ahmed/Zahra. There is also a sense that the storyteller expires having set the


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scene for a radical change in the storytelling process. The image of the dried-up well symbolizes the end of his particular storytelling stage. Later storytellers mark a large shift in the way that the story is told. In the first instance, the story is no longer publicly told to large crowds by a single person. It is told amongst a closed party of friends in a cafe. Furthermore, there is no distinction between storyteller and listeners, since each of the three storytellers in turn offers a variation on Zahra’s life as a woman whilst the other two companions listen. In addition, each figure claims a connection with the story that is more than an acquaintance with its protagonist or his diary. Fatouma, the woman of the group, claims to be the protagonist herself, for example. Most significantly, there is no book involved in the storytelling. Fatouma says ‘j’ai perdu le grand cahier où je consignais mon histoire’ [I had lost the notebook to which I had consigned my story],45 whilst neither of the other two storytellers attempts to connect their narrative with a book. Experience (each storyteller claims first-hand experience of the story) is thus ultimately privileged over textual authority, whilst the act of storytelling becomes a communal, smallscale affair. This suggests a popular takeover of the story, whereby everyone now has a claim to it and the right to make their own amendments and to perceive it in accordance with their own experience, whereas previously it was deemed the rightful property of those who alleged access to an inscribed version. This new approach wavers between the populist and the elitist. The fact that each listener is able to offer a story makes it populist, whilst the fact that the storytelling party is small, and that it pits itself against crowds of people that would not understand its approach, makes it somewhat elitist. The storytellers also represent, on the other hand, a grassroots takeover of religious sites and scripture, fashioning these in accordance with their own understandings without any dispensation from a higher religious authority. Thus their literary attitude merges with an attitude towards the theological. The second of the three cafe storytellers, Amar, speaks of the way in which he goes to the mosque ‘non pour prier, mais pour me recueillir dans un coin silencieux’ [not to pray, but to try to understand what is happening to us].46 He claims to have been woken up repeatedly by some ‘espèces de vigiles’ who wish to check his identity: ‘j’eus envie de leur dire: l’Islam que je porte en moi est introuvable. Je suis un homme seul, et la religion ne m’intéresse pas vraiment. Mais leur parler d’Ibn Arabi ou de Hallâj aurait pu me valoir des ennuis’ [some sort of night watchmen, I suppose. They searched me and checked my identity. I wanted to say to them: the Islam that I carry inside me cannot be found; I am a man who has lived alone, and religion does not really interest me. But if I talked to them about Ibn Arabi or El Hallaj, I would certainly have got myself into trouble].47 Similarly, the final storyteller, Fatouma, who claims to be Ahmed/Zahra, says: ‘je suis allée à La Mècque, plus par curiosité que par foi. J’étais noyée par cette horde en blanc. J’étais dedans, bousculée, écrasée’ [I went to Mecca, more out of curiosity than faith. I was drowned by that horde dressed in white, jostled and crushed].48 Both Amar and Fatouma are drawn to spots that would affirm their adherence to the teachings of sacred scripture, but by impulses that would challenge these same teachings. In both cases the characters are disparaging about the religious masses, which are

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represented as a single block attempting to toe the scriptural line. Breaking away from storytelling conventions is merged here with a move away from the traditional teachings of sacred scripture. In both cases there is a desire to move away from closed textual forms to more expansive ones. In religious terms, this involves experimentation with alternative uses for religious settings. During her time on pilgrimage, Fatouma begins to feel she is carrying the anguished scream of another woman in her breast. It is only upon reaching this ‘lieu de prière’ that she feels the need to let out this cry, capable of tearing up the vast expanses of ‘ciel’ [sky] and ‘foule’ [cloud]. Once on a boat moving away from Mecca, the impulse to let out this cry subsides. There is a sense here that aspects of the story are inspired by the presence of a storyteller in religious places. The fact that this cry is one that is most keenly felt in an intensely religious spot and is likely to disrupt this same spot suggests that literary impulses are both inspired by and are a challenge to theological teachings. Upon returning from her pilgrimage, Fatouma feels ‘libérée’ [liberated] by her pilgrimage, even though it is ‘mal accompli’ [left unfinished],49 and takes to sleeping in a mosque, where ‘recrocquevillée dans ma djellaba, le capuchin rabattu sur le visage, je pouvais passer pour un homme, un montagnard égaré dans la ville. Alors j’eus l’idée de me déguiser en homme’ [crouching in my jellaba, the hood pulled down over my face, I could be taken for a man, some mountain tribesman lost in the city. Then it occurred to me that I could disguise myself as a man].50 The story of Ahmed/ Zahra is thus continually connected to religious spaces, which are both privileged and undermined, their relevance and usage determined by individual experience, rather than the prescriptions of revealed text. The final section of the novel famously features the figure of the blind troubadour, who narrates the story of Ahmed/Zahra as told to him by an old woman, who travels from afar in order to relate her own story. This figure is commonly believed by critics to be a representation of Borges, whilst Ben Jelloun’s work has been paralleled with Borgesian magical realism. John Erickson identifies the undermining of a master narrative voice as a factor common to both authors. Master discourse is challenged, he argues, through the generating of endless textual possibilities, all of which are equally weighted (i.e. not one path to one particular destiny is taken, but all paths to all destinies are taken simultaneously, thereby creating infinite books that could go on forever). Erickson calls this an ‘anti-logocentric tendency’.51 In L’Enfant, the master narrative voice is refracted to show myriad narrative possibilities. This refractive narrative structure echoes the Blanchotian notion that all literary expression can be traced back to sacred scripture. Literary narrative is traceable to a theological originary moment. L’Enfant seems to uphold such an assertion through narratives that insist on their own theological provenance, whilst also seeming to eclipse and undermine sacred scripture. The text suggests that they are a result of combining theological text with individual experience, allowing for the emergence of individual idioms for expressing the sense of a guided personal destiny. This individualized sense of the divine and its impact on personal destiny is ultimately one that eludes being fully articulated, thereby preventing the sedimentation of notions of the divine that become prescriptive. In


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the following section I will trace a similar representation of personal experiences of the divine in Maalouf ’s Le Périple, and of the personalized religious idiom to which this leads. The Withdrawn Book in Amin Maalouf ’s Le Périple de Baldassare Like the story of Ahmed/Zahra, the story of Baldassare is that of a protagonist attempting to find his own course amidst a dense nexus of social norms and scriptural prophecies and interpretations. Whilst Ahmed/Zahra struggles specifically with Quranic discourse, living in a vast empire, Baldassare is exposed to multiple religious positions, all of which seem to be converging on the subject of imminent apocalypse. He first hears the prophecies from a Russian visitor to his bookshop. As a seller of rare books, he is also aware that people are in search of a mystical manuscript alleged to contain a divine name or attribute that protects against the horrors of 1666. This is by a Persian mystic named Mazandarani, and is called Le Dévoilement du nom cache [The Unveiling of the Hidden Name]. Pronouncing this hidden name would be enough to ‘écarter n’importe quel danger’ [avert any kind of danger] or ‘obtenir du Ciel n’importe quelle faveur’ [obtain any favour from Heaven].52 The basis for belief in a secret name stems from the Islamic teaching that God has ninety-nine names or attributes by which worshippers may address him. The mythical hundredth name is believed to complete the list. In spite of its Islamic origins, Mazandarani’s book is sought as an antidote to biblical prophecies by a variety of people, not all of them Christian: ‘j’ai vu défiler dans mon magasin toutes sortes de personnages, un carme déchaux, un alchimiste de Tabriz, un général ottoman, un kabbaliste de Tibériade, qui tous étaient à la recherche de ce livre’ [I’ve had all sorts of people through my shop — a barefoot friar, an alchemist from Tabriz, a Turkish general, a cabalist from Tiberias — every one of them looking for that book].53 Belief in the apocalypse is widespread, with people differing only in their understanding of its implications, of whether it will be a cause for fear or rejoicing. The question of salvation in the novel is presented as a question of personal worth. Baldassare’s nephew Boumeh reveals the reasons why the sacred hidden name is of importance to him: Dieu ne meurt pas, et n’est jamais remplacé par un autre, nous n’avons pas de l’appeler autrement. Ce qui ne veut pas dire qu’il n’a pas un autre nom, un nom intime. Il ne le confie pas au commun de mortels, seulement à ceux qui méritent de le connaître. Ceux-là sont les vrais Elus. [God doesn’t die and is never replaced by another, we don’t need to address Him in any other way. That doesn’t mean He hasn’t got another, secret name. He doesn’t tell ordinary mortals what it is — only those who deserve to know. They are the real Elect.]54

Boumeh’s sentiment echoes Harold Bloom’s depiction of a typical American relationship with God. Bloom notes the prevalence of revivalism in America, which he defines as ‘the individual discovering yet again what she and he always have known, which is that God loves her and him on an absolutely personal and

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indeed intimate basis’.55 Bloom suggests that the result of this is a nation of people each feeling they are ‘alone’ with God, and that they are secure in his affection. He connects this to the individualistic notion of freedom that characterizes American society: ‘freedom, in the context of the American Religion, means being alone with God or with Jesus, the American God or the American Christ. In social reality, this translates as solitude, at least in the inmost sense’.56 Bloom maintains that American Protestantism is characterized by ‘the exaltation of the elite self as against community’.57 This is because ‘the experiential encounter with Jesus or God is too overwhelming for memories of community to abide, and the believer returns from the abyss of ecstasy with the self enhanced and otherness devalued’.58 Bloom finds that ‘relations between texts, or even between texts and believers’59 are unhelpful in attempting to investigate the origins and the guiding principles of American religion. This is because the religion is ‘creedless’, and ‘needs to be tracked by particularities rather than by principles’.60 Although Bloom’s book looks at a variety of religious positions (Baptism, Southern Baptism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostalism, Seventh-Day Adventism, New Age religions, as well as forms of Islam and Judaism practised in modern-day America), these are all grouped together as a single ‘American Religion’, by virtue of their common embodiment of certain national characteristics, in the same way that the apocalypse places religious communities in one bracket in Le Périple. Bloom dubs these religious positions as ‘post-Christian’ because of their distance from originary scriptural Christian principles and their adoption of more Gnostic positions, the implication being that members of each faith have moved away from traditional teachings in parallel ways. The religious patterns described by Bloom are echoed in Le Périple. Belief in the apocalypse, and hope for salvation from it through access to the name in Mazandarani’s text, constitutes an individual scramble for salvation, coupled with a belief in one’s worth and status as elected for intimacy with God. The novel depicts a context where a strong sense of the collective is contrasted with strong religious individualism. This is an individualism that raises ethical issues, as well as contradicts the mechanisms of reason, as Baldassare himself notes, upon listening to Boumeh: ‘Je l’écoute avec complaisance, alors même que je sais que sa raison est déraison, et que sa foi est impiété’ [I listen to him patiently, even though I know his reason is unreason and his faith impiety].61 Boumeh’s attitude is juxtaposed with a more traditional Christian approach to God, expounded by a priest, Père Thomas, encountered on Baldassare’s travels: Pour un chrétien, la seule façon de s’adresser au Créateur, c’est la prière. On se montre modeste et soumis, on Lui exprime si l’on veut des doléances et des attentes, et l’on termine par amen, que Sa volonté soit faite. A l’inverse, l’orgueilleux cherche dans les livres des magiciens les formules qui lui permettront, pense-t-il d’inf léchir la volonté de Dieu [...] Il est l’insaisissable, l’imprévisible. Malheur à qui pretend l’apprivoiser. [The only way for a Christian to address God is through prayer. He must be humble and obedient and tell Him of his own grievances and hopes, concluding by saying Amen and trusting that His will may be done. Proud men, on the other hand, look in the books of magicians for forms of words they think can alter or divert God’s will. [...] He cannot be ruled by forms of words invented


Withdrawn Divine I by magicians, nor constrained by phrases or figures. He is incomprehensible and unpredictable, and woe to him who thinks he can tame Him!]62

This discourse upholds a greater sense of humility before God, promoting a more traditional relationship with the divine. Baldassare seems lost between the discourses of Boumeh and Père Thomas, feeling comfortable with neither. Whilst he is in pursuit of the Centième Nom, he is not fully convinced of the apocalyptic prophecies. Neither does he feel a wholehearted commitment to any other mode of religious discourse. During the first leg of the journey, Baldassare begins a romantic relationship with his female travel companion Marta. This is followed by his confessing his sin in church. He claims, however, that ‘l’acte de chair n’a pas pesé sur mes épaules qu’au moment où je me suis agenouillé dans l’église, pas avant’ [I wasn’t troubled by the act of f lesh until I knelt down in church],63 suggesting that he does not feel inclined towards prescribed religious laws. Moreover, church for Baldassare is not a place for prayer in the traditional sense: A l’église, je ne prie pas souvent. Lorsque j’y vais, c’est pour me laisser bercer par les voix chantantes, par l’encens, par les images, les statues, les cintres, les vitraux, les dorures, et voguer dans d’interminables méditations, qui sont plutôt des rêveries, des rêveries profanes, quelquefois même libertines. [I don’t often pray when I’m in church. I go there to be soothed by the singing, the incense, the pictures, the statues, the vaults and the stained-glass windows; I like to lose myself in meditation, reveries, daydreams that have nothing to do with religion and are sometimes even rather daring.]64

Baldassare notes that he has turned to prayer during desperate moments on his journey, but that it is not in his nature to believe in prayer or in miracles. His use of religious spaces to suit his own personal needs and spiritual impulses echoes that of the three storytellers in L’Enfant who also frequent religious spaces to fulfil their spiritual needs in non-prescribed ways. Thus Baldassare is not fulfilled by traditional religious ritual and discourse, nor is he inclined to believe in the apocalypse, and to approve of the highly individualistic scramble for salvation that this entails, despite seeming to join it. Yet he remains attuned to a sense of the divine in the world. This divine somehow governs the world and determines his own place in it. Baldassare’s quest is thus ultimately to find his own idiom for expressing his personal relationship with the divine. This idiom lies outside the parameters of scriptural law that applies itself to communities, as well as beyond the highly individualized sense of privilege before God proposed by those who anticipate the apocalypse. Baldassare experiences moments of clarity in particular when he comes across literary citations, as well as through the discourse of women, and through personal f leeting instances of intuition. In the first instance, handed a book of poetry by the eleventh-century Arab poet Abou-l-Ala, Baldassare opens it on a page that reads: ‘Ils disent que le Temps mourra bientôt | Que les jours sont à bout de souffle | Ils ont menti’ [They say the time is soon to die | That the days are short of breath | They lie].65 Further on, Baldassare falls on the following verses by Abou-l-Alaa: ‘Les gens voudraient qu’un imam se lève | et prenne la parole devant une foule muette | Illusion trompeuse; il n’y a pas d’autre imam que la raison | Elle seule nous guide de jour et de nuit’ [The people want an

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imam to arise | And speak to a silent crowd | An illusion; there is no imam but reason | It alone guides us day and night].66 Baldassare and his Jewish friend, Maïmoun, upon reading the verses, muse that ‘un chrétien et un juif conduits sur le chemin du doute par un poète musulman aveugle? Mais il y a plus de lumière dans ses yeux éteints que dans le ciel d’Anatolie’ [A Christian and a Jew led among the path of doubt by a Muslim? But there is more light in his dimmed eyes than in all the sky over Anatolia].67 There is a sense here in which truth is not literally inscribed in the scriptures that proclaim it, but is more subtly embedded in literary writing. The verses from which Baldassare and Maïmoun take comfort are roughly 600 years old in 1665, and thus do not refer specifically to the apocalyptic prophecies of their day. The fact that they speak so clearly and pertinently to the context in which Baldassare and his friend find themselves endows them with a timeless quality. Unlike the biblical prophecies, the poet’s refutations are not dated. This enhances their timelessness, and also gives them a somewhat nebulous quality, as it is not clear just from reading them to determine what exactly they might be refuting, or where exactly the text belongs. Despite this, the verses surpass the Bible in their accuracy and incisiveness. Again, there is a sense in which literature is of greater comfort and use than literal readings of sacred scripture. The fact that it bears the traces of an event or idea, as opposed to an explicit and temporally anchored reference to it, gives it a sense of timeless applicability. Moreover, Marta introduces the notion of localized and fragmented apocalypse, where every individual and community meets its troubles at different times. She exclaims: l’on me parle sans arrêt de fin du monde [...] et l’on croit me faire peur. Pour moi, le monde s’est achevé le jour où mon homme que j’aimais m’a trahie [...] Les gens ont peur de voir apparaître la Bête. Moi, je n’en ai pas peur. La Bête? Elle a toujours été là, près de moi. [‘People never stop talking to me about the end of the world [...] They think they’re frightening me. But for me the world ended when the man I loved betrayed me. [...] People are afraid of seeing the Beast appear. The Beast? It’s always been there, lurking near me.’]68

Baldassare himself experiences events that, he acknowledges, almost bring about his own personal end. Moreover, his plan to marry Marta once she has obtained official proof of her widowhood makes the coming year 1666 one of ‘un autre commencement’ [another beginning]69 for Baldassare. The notion of localized apocalypse is borne out by what Baldassare sees of the wider world. He encounters towns closed off because of plague infestations, and cities that experience other calamities of their own. Amongst these is the Great Fire of London, for example. In this way, notions of scriptural eschatology are undermined and fragmented through personal experience throughout the text. Baldassare is thus continually exposed to different discourses and opinions, and oscillates between these. His f lashes of devotional behaviour in desperate times are juxtaposed with the discourse of reason he adopts in calmer ones. As discussed above, for example, he and his Jewish companion Maïmoun find solace in the verses of the poet Abou-l-Alaa, which extol the virtues of reason over faith.


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Baldassare speaks of the ‘déraison’ of Boumeh’s approach to the apocalypse, as noted above. The text makes constant references to light and illumination in a way that constitutes an anachronistic reference to the ideals of the French Enlightenment. There is a reference to the ‘lumière’ in the eyes of the blind poet, whilst after a time of separation Baldassare meets the level-headed Maïmoun for a discussion at a French restaurant on the unreasonable behaviour of those awaiting the apocalypse. Baldassare confesses, however, to harbouring unresolved sentiments with regard to the prophecies: ‘je n’ai pas eu d’argument avec lui, je ne lui ai pas tenu tête. J’aurais eu honte de lui avouer que moi-même [...] suis ébranlé par tant d’inexplicables coïncidences, par tant de signes’ [I didn’t argue with him. I’d have been ashamed to admit that [...] I am troubled by all these inexplicable coincidences, all these signs].70 The discourse of reason is yet another discourse which is courted by Baldassare, but which does not put him wholly at ease. He cannot suppress his curiosity about phenomena that reason cannot explain, and feels compelled to continue his search for Mazandarani’s text. The text constantly eludes him, however. The balance of light surrounding the book is always wrong. When he first receives a copy of the text in the home of the old Hajj Idriss, the light is insufficient for reading: ‘je tournai les pages avec avidité, mais il faisait trop sombre, et je ne pus rien déchiffrer de plus que le titre’ [I turned the pages eagerly, but the room was too dark for me to make out more than the title].71 As he waits in the home of a book collector in Constantinople expecting him to produce a copy of the Centième Nom, a fire breaks out: ‘j’entrouvris la porte [...] Les murs et les tapis étaient en feu, une épaisse fumée emplissait la maison’ [I opened the door a little way [...] The walls and carpets were on fire and the house was full of dense smoke].72 The book is thus surrounded by excesses of both darkness and light. The intense light of fire is accompanied by the heavy darkness of smoke. Later in London where he comes closest to a copy of the Centième Nom, a thick dark mist clouds his vision from his first attempt to read the book: Dès que j’eus ouvert le livre, les ténèbres se sont installées [...] L’espace d’un instant, j’eus le sentiment d’avoir perdu toujours l’usage de mes yeux [...] Je refermai précipitamment le livre, et à l’instant, je pus voir à nouveau. [...] Un léger voile a persisté, et il persiste encore à l’heure où j’écris ces lignes. [The darkness descended as soon as I opened the book [...]. For a moment I thought I’d gone blind [...]. I slammed the book shut. And immediately I could see again. There was a thin veil over everything, and it’s still there now as I write.]73

Following attempts at reading the book in London, the Great Fire breaks out, once again forcing Baldassare to move on. Baldassare escapes from London with Mazandarani’s text. The grey cloud never lifts, however, and he is never able to read it, thus rendering the purpose of his journey both fulfilled and unfulfilled, inasmuch as Baldassare succeeds in obtaining a copy, but does not succeed in reading it. The quest for the text is couched in nebulous, ambiguous signs. The recurring fires that come between Baldassare and the book are a barrier, preventing Baldassare from accessing inscriptions of the mystical. They also call to mind the biblical fire encountered by Moses, when God speaks to Moses through a burning

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bush. In the Quran, the divine response to Moses’s request to see God is a light so intense that Moses is unable to behold it and loses consciousness. The fire thus constitutes an encounter or a communication with the divine, as well as obstructing the path to it. Similarly, the darkness also acts as an obstruction to the text, but is illuminating in its obstructiveness. The Centième Nom is not a name for reading or uttering, but one to be evoked or intuited in other ways. An inscription of it would render it a part of the prescriptive world of sacred scripture for which Baldassare has no great affinity. As with Mallarmé’s suspended poetic book, which is always evoked by other texts and never written or attained, the potency of the Centième Nom is intuited, but the name itself cannot be known or uttered. In this way, it plays out Blanchot’s notion of the ‘nom de Dieu’ [name of God], as discussed by Nancy in his essay ‘Le Nom de Dieu chez Blanchot’ [‘The Name of God in Blanchot’].74 For Nancy, the withdrawal of God through incarnation, just as it leaves behind an empty space (as I discuss in Chapter 1), also leaves behind a signifier voided of its signified. Nancy makes the case that this withdrawal of the ‘nom de Dieu’ from its meaning is echoed in language more generally, whereby a disjointedness is created between language and meaning, making experience difficult to inscribe. He remarks that in Blanchot the name of God is: Un nom qui fuit et qui pourtant revient, qui se trouve tour à tour (peu fréquemment mais, assez pour que l’on le remarque) fermement éloigné, puis évoqué dans son éloignement même, comme le lieu ou comme l’indice d’une forme d’intrigue de l’absentement du sens. [A name that f lees and then returns, finding itself alternately (not very fre­ quently, but often enough to be noticeable), firmly distanced, then evoked in its very distance as a site or as the index of a form of intrigue of the absenting of sense.]75

Baldassare experiences a substance whose name is never fully revealed. This resonates with such a notion of experience and the sense of meaning it generates as indescribable. Baldassare comes to the conclusion that whatever secret lies within the Centième Nom should remain a secret: Malheur à qui s’approche du nom caché, ses yeux sont assombris, ou éblouis — jamais éclairés. Dans mes prières, j’ai désormais envie de dire: Seigneur, ne soit jamais trop loin de moi! Mais ne soit pas non plus trop proche! Laisse-moi admirer les étoiles sur les pans de Ta robe! Mais ne me montre pas Ton visage! Permets-moi d’entendre le bruissement des rivières que Tu fais couler, le vent que Tu fais souff ler dans les arbres, et les rires des enfants que Tu fais naître! Mais, Seigneur! Seigneur! ne permets pas que j’entende Ta voix! [Woe to whoever approaches the hidden name: his eyes are always dimmed or dazzled — never lit. Now, when I pray, I feel like saying: “Lord, never be too far away from me! But don’t be too close to me either! Let me admire the stars on the hem of Thy robe! But do not show me Thy face! Let me hear the rippling of Thy rivers, the sound of Thy wind blowing through the trees, and the laughter of Thy children! But Lord, Lord! Let me not hear thy voice!]76

He ultimately forges together a spiritual language based on his own experience,


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featuring elements of other spiritual and religious discourses, but committing to none. His exclamation that ‘Malheur à qui s’approche du nom caché’ echoes the early warning of Père Thomas with regards to God, where he says ‘Malheur à qui prétend l’apprivoiser’, thus evoking traditional Christian discourse, as does his formulation of a prayer to God. His desire neither to see the face of God nor to hear his voice, however, expresses the opposite desire to that of Moses, and suggests an anti-prophetic stance that takes him away from traditional religious discourse. Moreover, Baldassare’s reference to stars, rivers, trees, and children as signs of God (rather than anything specifically scriptural or religious) suggests that the world at large is a temple, and not any specific and enclosed space within it, thus skirting the bounds of humanist discourse. The concluding note therefore alludes to a sense of the divine, as well as to a guided human destiny (since Baldassare is ultimately carefully guided by his quest for the book). This divine may only be intuited on an individual level. The individual nature of this experience does not match the selfish sense of an individual relationship with the divine, as represented by Boumeh. It is one that allows for a personalized spiritual idiom that grows out of the experiences of the individual, and does not favour scripturally prescribed, legalistic modes of worship. Conclusion Reading the motifs of blank and deferred books in L’Enfant and Le Périple through the optic of Blanchot’s understanding of the withdrawn book leaves us with an irresolute sense of how literary text and sacred scripture relate to one another. On the one hand, Blanchot’s suggestion that literature is always a reformulation of sacred scripture makes it possible to read the same motif in both novels as a distancing of an inert monotheistic discourse from dynamic human experience. Sacred scripture is not attacked, defaced, or discredited. Literature allows for a more subtle process of distancing through personal idiom. Yet on the other hand, this distancing process is not necessarily one that seeks to efface, eclipse, or undermine sacred scripture, but may be construed as a means of maintaining a sense of dialogue (as opposed to dichotomy) with it. Blanchot’s positing of the literary text as a space for rephrasing sacred scripture ultimately insists on a certain inescapable primacy or centrality of sacred text to literary production. The personalized religious idiom in both novels captures aspects of a more traditional religious discourse, attempting to merge it with individual experience. The fusion of a collectively intended discourse with personal experience results in articulations of encounters with the divine that sometimes seem at odds with traditional theological discourse, but that ultimately also validate these, rendering them worthy of re-expression. Moreover, the fact that sacred scripture can be credited with eliciting myriad personal and literary responses endows it with literary qualities of its own, suggesting it is not merely over-literal and dogmatic. Overall, then, the impression is not of a literary anti-discourse that merely opens up or challenges a tightly woven narrative, but one that teases out its dialogic strands. It demonstrates the potential of human experience as exegesis through its use of language to ref lect on abstractions of that experience.

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Notes to Chapter 2 1. Henry Munson Jr, ‘The Social Base of Islamic Militancy in Morocco’, Middle East Journal, 40 (1986), 267–84. 2. Halim Barakat, ‘Social and Political Integration in Lebanon: A Case of Social Mosaic’, The Middle East Journal, 27 (1973), 301–18, p. 302. 3. Ibid. 4. Ibid. 5. Ibid. 6. Ben Jelloun, La Nuit sacrée (Paris: Seuil, 1987), p. 163/The Sacred Night, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Quartet, 1989), p. 163/The Sacred Night, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London and New York: Quartet, 1989), p. 155. 7. Carine Bourget, ‘9/11 and the Affair of the Muslim Headscarf in Essays by Tahar Ben Jelloun and Abdelwahab Meddeb’, French Cultural Studies, 19 (2008), 71–84 (p. 74). 8. Ibid. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid. 11. Tahar Ben Jelloun, L’Islam expliqué aux enfants (Paris: Seuil, 2002), p.55/Islam Explained, trans. by Philip Franklin (New York: New Press, 2004), p. 47. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid. 14. See Eva Corredor, ‘(Dis)embodiments of the Father in Maghrebian Fiction’, The French Review, 66 (1992), 295–304. 15. Published in Maurice Blanchot, Le Livre à venir (Paris: Gallimard, 1959)/The Book to Come trans. by Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). 16. Published in L’Entretien infini (Paris: Gallimard, 1992)/The Infinite Conversation, trans. by Susan Hanson (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). 17. Ibid., p. 619/p. 430. 18. Ibid., p. 622/p. 432. 19. Ibid., p. 627/p. 427. 20. Ben Jelloun, L’Enfant de sable (Paris: Seuil, 1985), p. 12/Sand Child, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London and New York: Quartet, 1987), p. 5 (my translation in italics). 21. Abdelwahab Meddeb, Face à l’islam: entretien mené par Philippe Petit (Paris: Textuel, 2004), p. 152. 22. Ben Jelloun, L’Enfant, p. 70/pp. 49–50. 23. Ibid., pp. 33–34/p. 22. 24. Ibid., p. 34/p. 22. 25. Ibid., p. 34/p. 23. 26. Ibid. 27. Ibid., p. 38/p. 25. 28. Ibid., p. 38/p. 26. 29. Ibid., p. 94/p. 70. 30. Ibid. 31. Ibid. (my translation in italics). 32. Ibid., pp. 41–42/p. 27. 33. Ibid., p. 42/my translation (elided from Sheridan’s translation). 34. Ibid., p. 43/p. 28. 35. Ibid. 36. Ibid., p. 43/p. 29. 37. Ibid., p. 70/p. 50. 38. Ibid. 39. My translation. 40. Neal Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary approach to a Veiled Text (London: SCM Press, 2003), p. 229. 41. See Mustapha Marrouchi, ‘My Aunt is a Man: Ce “je” — là est multiple’, Comparative Literature, 54(2002), 325–56.


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42. Ben Jelloun, L’Enfant, p. 89/p. 66. 43. Ibid., p. 107/p. 80. 44. Ibid., p. 136/p. 104. 45. Ibid., p. 170/p. 133. 46. Ibid., p. 146/p. 113. 47. Ibid., p. 146/pp. 113–14. 48. Ibid., p. 164/p. 128. 49. Ibid., p. 166/p. 129. 50. Ibid., p. 166/p. 130. 51. John Erickson, ‘Magical Realism and Nomadic Writing in the Maghreb’, in A Companion to Magical Realism, ed. and intro. by Stephen M. Hart and Wen-Chin Ouyang (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2005), pp. 247–55. 52. Amin Maalouf, Le Périple de Baldassare (Paris: Grasset, 2000), p. 17/Balthasar’s Odyssey, trans. by Barbara Bray (London: Harvill Press, 2000), p. 8. 53. Ibid., p. 18/p. 8. 54. Ibid., p. 127/p. 96. 55. Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 17. 56. Ibid., p. 15. 57. Ibid. 58. Ibid., p. 127. 59. Ibid., p. 28. 60. Ibid. 61. Maalouf, Le Périple, p. 128/p. 97. 62. Ibid., p. 125/pp. 94–95. 63. Ibid., p. 143/p. 109. 64. Ibid., p. 169/p. 131. 65. Ibid., p. 63/p. 46. 66. Ibid., p. 100/p. 75. 67. Ibid. 68. Ibid., p. 95/p. 70. 69. Ibid., p. 164/p. 126. 70. Ibid., p. 201/p. 156. 71. Ibid., p. 26/p. 16. 72. Ibid., p. 152/p. 116. 73. Ibid., pp. 420–21/p. 324. 74. In Jean-Luc Nancy, La Déconstruction de christianisme (Paris: Galilée, 2005), p. 133/Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 85. 75. Ibid., pp. 30–31/p. 86. 76. Ibid., p. 489/p. 378.

Chapter 3


Withdrawn Divine II Vanishing Bodies and Empty Space in Georges Perec’s La Disparition and Assia Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française Introduction The previous chapter explored the personalization of religious narratives in novels by Ben Jelloun and Maalouf against the backdrop of readings of sacred scripture that are used to generate a strong sense of collective identity. This is expressed throughout both novels using the motif of a withdrawn book. A search for the book leads far and wide, but its contents always remain withheld. Thus whilst the book guides protagonists’ movements and shapes their personal destinies, it does not impart textual information, suggesting that divine wisdom is better discovered through experience than read from a book. Following on from this, I will examine here the motif of vanishing people in Georges Perec’s La Disparition and Assia Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française. Both novels feature characters who disappear and are thus made absent from the text. They are evoked through the sense of silence they leave behind. I will interpret these motifs of vanishing bodies and silence in both novels through philosopher Jean-Luc Marion’s understanding of silence as an ultimate expression of the divine. Marion argues that the divine remains beyond any attempts at codification or representation, and that silence is the best way to conceive of the divine as distance and withdrawal. Both the novels of Djebar and Perec present multiple languages and codes. The introduction of each new language or code suggests the imperfection and incompletion of the others at work in the texts. The more of these employed, the greater the emphasis on a lacuna that exceeds them all. In this way, both novels foreground a tension between a need to speak and to fill a silence, and an awareness that this silence cannot be filled. Marion’s silence, which lies beyond all systems of code and logic is theistic, affirming the divine, unlike the excess evoked in the writing of Meddeb and Nancy. Indeed, for Marion, the idea of the divine as silence defies the possibility of it being argued or explained away. This will allow for a reading of withdrawal in the novels of Perec and Djebar as affirmative of a divine that cannot be inscribed. Marion does not apply his ideas to literature directly, whilst Perec and Djebar’s novels do not openly or exclusively connect the trope of absence to the divine. Indeed, whilst critics have identified an interrogation of the divine in Perec’s


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work, particularly when questioning the workings of chance,1 the void in La Disparition is commonly read as an expression of the silence left by the world’s disappeared Jewry, and is thus a commemorative silence. It is not usually identified as an expression of the divine and its relationship to language. Claude Burgelin suggests that the missing ‘e’ in Perec’s novel (which is famously a lipogram in the letter ‘e’) is a homonym of ‘eux’ [them], gesturing to the exterminated Jewry of the Holocaust.2 Perec introduces a void into the French language that ref lects the social void left by disappeared people. I will argue with the help of Marion, however, that in addition to these commemorative concerns, the void motif carries a subtle allusion to the divine. Similarly, the silences in Djebar’s texts are commonly read as commemorative of the absence of those who disappeared in the fight for Algerian independence or, as is the case in La Disparition de la langue française, of persecuted francophone intellectuals. This novel also, however, offers a critique of political religious discourse, which attempts to impose a single code of living on the nation. This is a code that stamps out plurality (of language, of political opinion, of approaches to religion). The plurivocal nature of Djebar’s texts is a rebellion against the monolithic (in life and in discourse), whether this be imposed by French renditions of history that leave out women’s voices, or religious political movements that attempt to derive a single way of living for all from a monotheistic text that offers itself to multiple readings. Using Marion, I will suggest that the silence or void evoked by Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française may be read as a dislodging of the divine from reductive political discourse, maintaining its withdrawn status. Published in 2005, Djebar’s novel appears almost forty years after the publication of Perec’s La Disparition in 1967. As acknowledged by Jane Hiddleston,3 her title gestures towards Perec’s. La Disparition is a detective mystery that follows the story of an eclectic group of young friends and acquaintances who mysteriously disappear, in almost all cases without a trace. Unlike Djebar’s text, the root cause of the mystery is ultimately unveiled in Perec’s text, as readers learn that the vanishing characters, unbeknownst to themselves, are all brothers, sisters, and cousins hunted down by a vengeful grandfather. Djebar’s text tells the story of Berkane, an Algerian returning in middle age to his native Algerian town after a twenty-year absence in Paris, hoping to re-establish a connection with his homeland. Berkane begins to collect his memoirs of childhood and adolescence in a volume he entitles L’Adolescent, in which he dwells particularly on his involvement with the Algerian freedom movement during his early teens, and his ensuing incarceration in camps for political detainees. He disappears, however, before he has managed to complete his autobiographical manuscript. His car is found empty, overturned in a ditch, and it is believed that he has fallen victim to a political kidnapping or assassination like those commonly perpetrated against francophone intellectuals by extreme Islamist groups in the early 1990s, which is when the story is set. The narrative continues after his disappearance, tracing the movements of his journalist brother Driss, also threatened by the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), his French ex-girlfriend Marise, and his Algerian lover Nadjia. The FIS was set up in 1989 as a result of the 1988 amendment to the Algerian Constitution in the wake of popular expressions of discontent with the regime.

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This Constitution transformed Algeria from a one-state nation to ‘multi-party democracy’.4 The new religious party covered a broad base, representing both moderate and more militant members who believed in the establishment of an Islamic state, where sharia (Quranic) law would be implemented. The party proved extremely successful in the 1990 local elections, and the government responded by curtailing their powers. When, in 1991, they won the first round of parliamentary elections, the government cancelled the elections and outlawed the party, arresting and imprisoning many of its leaders. Remaining leaders turned to underground militancy, plunging the country into civil war. Robert Mortimer argues that the FIS were characterized by a quality of nebulousness, with little being known of their leadership and its exact aims and methods: ‘Many observers likened the Islamist movement to a nebula because of its diffuse and indistinct nature, the vagueness of its programmes and the diversity of its attitudes’.5 The FIS, for example, ‘never publicly revealed the names of all the members of its executive council’.6 Moreover, Mortimer describes the way in which Algerian professionals gradually became a target of Islamist militancy: In March (1993), the campaign of terror against the civilian intelligentsia began. The victims were all well-known professionals in diverse fields: academics, physicians, lawyers, artists and especially journalists. The first targets were sel­ ected for their prominence as secular leaders in their respective fields; over time, it sufficed to murder a school teacher, an unveiled woman, or a foreigner.7

The mystery and silence that shroud both the reasons for Berkane’s disappearance in Djebar’s novel and the way in which he was captured ref lect the all-pervading sense of insidiousness of this period in Algerian history, which Mortimer dubs the ‘Second Algerian War’ in his title. In the next section of this chapter, I will outline Marion’s ideas on the divine as silence and empty space. I will then move on to a discussion of the increased move towards a language of silence in the work of both Perec and Djebar, before looking more closely at the motifs of vanishing bodies, silence, and void in two subsequent sections, the first of which looks at Perec’s La Disparition and the second of which focuses on Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française. Jean-Luc Marion: The Divine as Empty Space In L’Idole et la distance, Marion rereads the motif of blank or empty space which, for many twentieth-century thinkers, has signified the end of the divine or, in Nietzschean terms, ‘the death of God’, conversely as an affirmation of the divine. Aspects of his argument unfold specifically in response to Nietzsche, whose famous assertion is both softened and undermined. Marion engages with Nietzsche’s famous phrase ‘God is dead’, popularized in his text Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and which comes from the book’s predecessor The Gay Science, in which Nietzsche expounds on the notion of the death of God. Let us beware! Let us beware of thinking the world is a living being. Whither should it spread itself? What should it nourish itself with? How could it grow and multiply? [...] shall we reinterpret the unspeakably derivative, late, rare,


Withdrawn Divine II chance phenomena which we perceive only on the surface of the earth into the essential, universal, eternal, as they do who call the earth a living organism? [...] Let us beware of presupposing that something so orderly as the cyclical motions of our planetary neighbours are the general and universal case [...] The total nature of the world is [...] to all eternity chaos [...] there is no-one to command, no-one to obey, no-one to transgress.8

More explicitly, the semi-literary narrator exclaims that ‘God is dead’: We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers [...] Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?9

The motif of empty space is one that is taken up by Marion, and transformed into a mark of the divine, as opposed to a mark of its absence. The notion of the death of God has come to be most closely associated with Nietzsche, even though he is not the first to utter it. Jean Paul, uses the phrase ‘Gott ist tod’ in his 1796 novel Siebenkäs, along with all the anxieties that such a death brings (the death of God is featured in the novel as part of a dream, which is then renounced on waking). Nerval’s poem, ‘Le Christ aux oliviers’, opens with a distorted epigraph from Jean Paul, proclaiming that ‘Dieu est mort, le ciel est vide! ... | Pleurez enfants vouz n’avez plus de père’ [God is dead! The heavens are empty ... | Weep children, you have no father now!].10 The subsequent proclamation that ‘God is dead’ made by Nietzsche, who most likely read the work of Jean Paul and Nerval, thus reiterates and sediments a long-emerging sentiment. Marion discusses at length the concept of the ‘mort de Dieu’ as a contradiction in terms, concluding that: Ceux qui ont médité le plus décisivement la ‘mort de Dieu’, (Hegel, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Heidegger, et quelques autres [...]), ont lu dans cet énoncé tout autre chose qu’une réfutation de (l’existence de) Dieu. Ils y ont reconnu la mani­ festation paradoxale, mais radical, du divin. [Those who meditated on the ‘death of God’ most decisively — Hegel, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and a few others [...] — read in that pronouncement something completely other than a refutation (of the existence) of God. They recognized in it the paradoxical but radical manifestation of the divine.]11

Marion asks the question ‘si l’on a démontré que ‘Dieu’ ne tient pas, en quoi a-t-on touché à Dieu?’ [if one has demonstrated that ‘God’ does not hold, in what way has one touched God?].12 There is a sense in which God remains above and beyond the discussions on his nature, whilst the notion of the death of God can never constitute more than a refutation of a particular understanding of God: Rien d’aussi étranger à la ‘mort de Dieu’ que l’athéisme commun; il s’agit à la fois de beaucoup moins (d’une idole), et de beaucoup plus — d’un événement que les convictions n’atteignent pas plus que les incroyances ne le provoquent. [There is nothing more foreign to the ‘death of God’ than common atheism; it is a matter both of much less (an idol) and much more — of an event that is reached by convictions no more than it is provoked by unbelief.]13

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Thus, ‘la “mort de Dieu” n’affirme qu’un visage inversé de certains cultes de “Dieu”: rien n’a changé, que l’éclairage violent qui fige le “Dieu” dans la pierre de son image’ [the ‘death of God’ offers only an inverted face of certain cults of ‘God’: nothing has changed except the violent lighting that freezes the ‘God’ in the stone of his image].14 The ‘death of God’ is merely the death of a particular notion of the divine. The blank or empty space left in place of God is the divine itself, which, stripped of human projections, manifests itself as empty space and silence. Thus Marion undertakes to show that only certain philosophical concepts of God have died. The divine itself remains untouched, well beyond the reach of any form of philosophical conceptualization. Marion’s argument rests on his widening of the concept of the idol, such that it encompasses not only physical images of the divine, but also divine attributes and philosophical systems of logic. For Marion, the creation of a physical idol follows an individual’s experience of the divine. The idol worshipper knows that he is worshipping something made by his own hand. He is offering the image to God in the hope that God will allow it to capture some aspect of himself: ‘l’idole doit fixer le divin distant et diffus, et nous assurer de sa présence, de sa puissance, de sa disponibilité’ [the idol must fix the distant and diffuse divinity and assure us of its presence, of its power, of its availability].15 This idol ‘ne nous ressemble pas, mais elle ressemble au divin que nous éprouvons, et le rassemble en un dieu, pour que nous puissions le voir’ [the idol does not resemble us, but it resembles the divinity that we experience, and it gathers it in a god in order that we might see it].16 Moreover, Elle [the idol] assure du divin, et, même quand elle terrorise, rassure en identi­ fiant le divin dans le visage d’un dieu. D’où sa prodigieuse efficacité politique: elle rend proche, protecteur, et fidèlement assermenté le dieu qui, s’identifiant à la cité, lui garde une identité. [It [the idol] apprehends divinity, and, even when it terrorizes, it reassures by identifying the divinity in the face of a god. Hence its prodigious political effectiveness: it renders close, protective and faithfully sworn the god who, identifying himself with the city, maintains an identity for it.]17

Marion’s idol is thus a physical expression of a highly personalized or localized moment of intuition of the divine. Christina Gschwandtner explains that for Marion the logic of the idol dictates that ‘the divine mirrors the human gaze exactly’,18 creating what Marion calls the ‘univocal gaze’.19 This gaze limits the immeasurable expansiveness of the divine, thus creating a false sense of ‘common measure’20 between the divine and the human. Marion insists that this is blasphemous, and that the divine itself remains distinct from the idol, which captures only what the individual believes himself to have experienced. It is a means of reassuring the worshipper of the nearness of an unperceived God. In this way, the idol is a human reduction of the divine to a human image of it. Marion points out that the term ‘atheism’ originally refers to a state of being deserted by the gods, as opposed to deserting them oneself. The function of idol worship is thus to protect the worshipper from this feeling of desertion, which arises from having to face a divine that cannot be assimilated into the human imagination.


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Furthermore, Marion goes on to broaden the applicability of the term ‘idole’ so that it encompasses aspects of conceptualizing God, and not merely of making physical images and representations of him. Marion argues that it is possible to ‘interpréter le concept, ou plutôt les concepts de “Dieu” comme des idoles, ou plutôt comme des opérateurs de ce que l’idole, pour sa part, opéra aussi’ [interpret the concept, or rather concepts, of ‘God’ as idols, as agents of what the idol, for its part, also brings about].21 This is because, like the physical idol, the conceptual one serves to bring God within the fold of a graspable, human logic, thereby, once again, undermining the sense of distance and alterity between man and the divine. A God that is intellectually tamed ‘reste une idole — une pensée qui [...] demeure une pensée qu’il appartient à l’homme de “créer” ’ [remains an idol [...] that it belongs to man to ‘create’].22 Marion focuses on the example of the philosophically defined God of ‘l’onto-théologie’. The philosophical line of thinking offers a tightly argued path towards God: ‘tout se passe comme si la pensée conduisait aisément, rigoureusement au dernier concept, pour y saisir ce qui lui tient lieu de Dieu’ [everything happens as if thought led easily, rigorously and demonstratively to a final concept so as to grasp in it that which takes the place of God].23 God, in this argument, is presented as an ‘ultima ratio’, a reason for all things, where ‘l’étant suprême rend raison de l’étant dans son Être’ [the supreme being gives the reason for beings in their Being].24 This, for Marion, is a form of idolatry, which reductively places God within a particular frame of thinking. Moreover, this logically conceived God makes no room for the excesses of spiritual expression. Citing Heidegger, he claims: ‘ “ce Dieu, l’homme ne peut ni le prier, ni rien lui offrir, ni devant lui tomber à genou par respect, ni jouer de la musique ni dancer” ’ [‘To this God man cannot pray or offer anything, nor can he fall before him in respect, nor play music or dance’].25 For Marion, then, iconoclasm is not restricted to a rejection of physical images of the divine, but of conceptual reductions of the divine to human logic also. Marion’s description of iconoclasm overlaps with Nancy’s understanding of monotheism in the essay Un jour, les dieux se retirent ... Nancy explains that whilst pagan gods are multiple and physically present everywhere in statuesque forms, for example, the single monotheistic deity is omnipresent yet absent, intangible, blank. The blank space is thus not representative of the death of God, but of the death of the pagan gods and indeed, of the birth of the concept of God, the monotheistic deity. Nancy asserts that: Un jour les dieux se retirent. D’eux-mêmes ils se retirent de leur divinité, c’est-à-dire de leur présence. Ils ne s’absentent pas simplement: ils ne vont pas ailleurs, ils se retirent de leur propre présence: ils s’absentent dedans. Ce qui reste de leur présence, c’est ce qui reste de toute présence lorsqu’elle s’est absentée: il reste ce qu’on en peut dire. Ce qu’on en peut dire est ce qui reste lorsqu’on ne peut plus s’adresser à elle: ni lui parler, ni la toucher, ni la regarder, ni lui faire un présent.26 [One day, the gods withdraw. They withdraw themselves of their own accord from their own divinity, that is to say, from their own presence. They do not simply absent themselves. They do not go elsewhere. They withdraw from their own presence: they absent themselves within. That which remains of their presence is that which remains of any presence that has absented itself: only

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what may be said of it. What may be said of it is what remains when one can no longer address it through speech, nor reach it through touch, nor gaze, nor gift.]

The withdrawal of all pagan gods, for Nancy, leaves behind a space of withdrawal that constitutes the monotheistic divine. Marion too argues that: La mort des idoles dégage un espace-vide. L’épreuve dès lors se confond avec le vide d’une désertion, dans l’attente d’une nouvelle présence. Car le lieu du divin, du fait même de son dégagement par évacuation, devient béant. [The death of the idols frees up a space — an empty space. The trial is henceforth joined with emptiness of a desertion, in expectation of a new presence. For, precisely because of its opening up through evacuation, the place of the divine becomes gaping.]27

This is a ‘béance’ and an anticipation that are to be experienced as withdrawal, as a constant present-absence, as a ‘théophanie négative’ [negative theophany]. Marion’s use of the term ‘espace-vide’ echoes Nietzsche’s use of the same term. Where Nietzsche’s empty space marks the ‘death of God’, Marion’s merely marks ‘la mort des idoles’, which brings about an unmediated exposure to the divine. Marion acknowledges the sense of ‘attente’, the desire to fill the ‘espace-vide’ with a ‘nouvelle présence’ each time that this space is encountered unmediated through idolatrous images or language. To seek to bridge the sense of distance or gap is, however, a fallacious endeavour, which leads the worshipper away from the divine, and not closer to it. The impulse to broach the ‘espace-vide’ is overwhelming, and yet doomed to fail. In place of the ‘idole’, Marion advocates recourse to the ‘icone’. Unlike the idol, which is designed to undermine the sense of distance between man and God, the icon serves to mark this very distance. This icon, Marion claims, is based on the divine figure of the Father in the Christian Trinity which, unlike Christ who descends into the world, remains distant and beyond perception. The Trinitarian Father is a: Figure, non d’un Dieu qui, en cette figure, perdrait son invisibilité pour nous devenir familier jusqu’à la familiarité, mais d’un Père qui rayonne d’autant plus d’une définitive et irréductible transcendance qu’il la donne sans réserve à voir dans la figure de son Fils. La profondeur du visage visible du Fils livre au regard l’invisibilité du Père comme telle. [A figure not of a God who in that figure would lose its invisibility in order to become known to us to the point of familiarity, but of a Father who radiates with a definitive and irreducible transcendence all the more insofar as he unreservedly gives that transcendence to be seen in his Son. The depth of the visible face of the Son delivers to the gaze the invisibility of the Father as such.]28

The nature of this icon as undefined renders it a ‘théophanie négative’ [negative theophany].29 Marion posits his work against that of the onto-theological vision of God, suggesting that the way in which to go beyond this God is to remain silent, rather than to expound on his nature and proofs of his existence. Even the philosophical proposition of a negative theology can be reductive, assimilating the


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‘espace-vide’ to a philosophical discourse. Marion thus underpins the problematic relationship between language and the divine. The tension between the need for silence and the desire for representation is highlighted in Marion’s discussion of the figure of Christ in Nietzsche, through which Marion suggests that Nietzsche’s Christ offers an anti-idolatrous model for a human relationship with the divine. The suffering of Christ, for Nietzsche, demonstrates a human exposure to states that no idol can alleviate: Ce qui impose la souffrance, mais aussi ce qui permet d’oser l’affronter, c’est qu’aucune représentation idolâtrique (Wahn) n’usurpe, d’une fausse garantie, le nom de Dieu. En un sens radical, le cri du Christ et du Psaume 22 ne trahit pas seulement la solitude d’un abandonné: il révèle que les idoles s’effondrent, qui enserraient, d’une sphère close, illusoire et douce, l’homme, jusqu’à lui dérober tout accès authentique à quelque chose comme le divin. [What imposes suffering, but also what allows one to dare to confront it, is that no idolatrous representation (Wahn) usurps the name of God with a false guarantee. In a radical sense, the cry of Christ and of Psalm 22 does not only betray the solitude of one who is abandoned; it reveals that those idols collapse that would embrace man within a closed, illusory, and gentle sphere to the point of depriving him of any authentic access to something like the divine.]30

Thus, ‘le Christ crie d’un cri [...] de celui qui perce le voile idolâtrique pour nager dans l’océan de la distance’ [The Christ cries with the cry [...] of the one who pierces the idolatrous veil to swim in the ocean of distance].31 Marion argues that the Christ of Nietzsche’s thinking is a man, not an idol (‘homme — et non idole de l’homme’ [man — and not the idol of man]),32 whose experience typifies the true human relation with the divine, which is one of distance that cannot be mediated by idols. The role of Christ takes on idolatrous dimensions, however, when considered in light of the Christian notion of God as ‘love’. Marion argues in the first instance that ‘Christ est un des noms pour celui qui fait l’épreuve du divin’ [Christ is one of the names for the one who experiences the divine].33 The fact that Christ is tethered to the divine means that ‘Le Christ [...] ne vaut que ce que vaut le divin ainsi abordé’ [The Christ [...] is worth only as much as the divine thus approached].34 Christ is thus bound by the identity attributed to the divine. The Christian notion of the divine is that God is ‘amour’ [love], a qualification deemed inadequate by Marion,35 as well as by Marion’s Nietzsche: ‘l’amour ne suffit pas à définir, ni à rendre compte d’un “Dieu” où pénètre seule une analyse de ressentiment. Seul, l’amour n’est pas digne de foi, parce que “Dieu” ne s’y révèle pas de bonne foi’ [Alone, love is not worthy of faith, because ‘God’ does not reveal himself therein in good faith].36 Marion goes on to paint a picture of divine love as selfish and exclusive, demanding love from humanity, and returning it only to those who believe in Him. The fallacies and imperfections of the notion of God as ‘love’ renders Christ, as ‘celui qui l’éprouve, l’approuve et l’apporte’ [the one who experiences, approves and brings that God],37 an idol ‘d’un autre visage du divin’ [another face of the divine],38 one that has to die, because it is merely an (ephemeral) mask over the divine. Marion’s discussion illustrates the fact that using language to understand the divine is just as illusory and

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problematic as using physical idols, thereby emphasizing the importance of silence in representing the divine, and the avoidance of assertions that attempt to resolve or qualify it. Marion thus puts forward an understanding of blank or empty space as the divine. He doubly highlights the impossibility of total silence due to the impulse to fill this space or explain it through language, as well as language’s innate inability to encapsulate any aspect of the divine. The following sections on the novels of Djebar and Perec will focus on the notion of an idiom of silence in both texts, looking at the ways in which language is used to evoke a silence expressive of empty space, as opposed to attempting to fill that space or assimilate it to any discourse. This silence, in both cases, is best evoked through the use of multiple languages or codes, each of which highlights the incompleteness and imperfection of the others, and all of which, together, gesture towards something that eludes them all. Literary language, moreover, is shown to be highly effective in evoking silence, due to the fact that it allows for slippage between languages and codes, and is not bound by any single intellectual approach, seeking to tame motifs and reduce them so that they fit into an overarching framework. The empty space may merely be evoked, without being explained or resolved. Perec and Djebar: The Move towards Silence For both Djebar and Perec, literature allows for the possibility of speaking about withdrawn bodies and empty space without reducing these to any limiting system of logic. As mentioned above, Marion focuses on the discourses of philosophy and onto-theology, and does not discuss literature. Similarly, Djebar and Perec engage with the problems of using literature to represent withdrawal, absence, and silence, without openly or consistently connecting such motifs to any notion of the divine. Thus, on the one hand, an examination of Djebar and Perec through the optic of Marion extends Marion’s discussion to literature, underpinning the ways in which it may be used to communicate an inexpressible divine without needing to define it. Moreover, it allows for a bolder reading of the motifs of silence and withdrawal in the writing of both authors as the divine, albeit in a differentiated way. In Djebar’s work, silence becomes the divine, released from the confines of political rhetoric, whilst in Perec the idea of the divine as silence forms part of a subtle questioning of the causes of historic tragedy. Put together, these texts offer another example of the way in which literature engages with monotheistic scripture: not through reformulation or re-expression of its language and narratives, as in the case of Maalouf and Ben Jelloun, but through an implicit exploration of the concept of the divine, and its role in public life (in Djebar’s novel) and human history (in Perec’s novel). Both born in 1936, Perec and Djebar are contemporaries, whose careers run parallel to one another. Djebar published her first novel, La Soif, in 1957, whilst Perec published Les Choses in 1965. The early texts of both writers ref lect the immediate contexts of their young authors. Djebar’s first novel depicts a young woman’s search for love, whilst, Hiddleston argues, the subsequent novels of the


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1950s and 1960s become increasingly preoccupied with the place of women in the ongoing narrative of Algerian resistance, hinting at the ways in which women’s contributions to resistance are being occluded (Djebar herself was involved in the resistance movement, writing for the FLN’s anti-colonialist publication El Moud­ jahid during the War of Independence). Hiddleston argues that in some cases, the women in Djebar’s earlier novels fail to find a firm sense of identity, ref lecting Algeria’s failure to do this as a nation.39 Following her novels of the 1950s and 1960s, Djebar took a break from writing and spent the 1970s experimenting with film. She made two films, one of which, La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua, began to showcase Djebar’s training as an historian, featuring interviews with women who participated in the resistance. The theme of attempting to mourn a resistance fighter named Zoulikha, whose body is never found, is featured in Djebar’s later novel La Femme sans sépulture. Djebar returns to writing in 1980, with the publication of Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, a collection of narratives that illustrate the varied experience of women during the struggle for Algerian independence. This is followed by L’Amour, La Fantasia, which traces the experiences of women further back into history, looking at feminine responses to the colonial invasion. From this time on, the focus of Djebar’s work becomes chief ly the creation of a space for women’s historic narratives that avoids the traditional pitfalls of representation, which include reductive stereotyping and an undermining of variety and dynamism. Djebar’s later writing moves away from the f luency of her earlier narratives, and adopts motifs of ellipsis, silence, fragment, and incompletion, in order to undermine the idea that writing posits itself as exhaustive representation, and to produce writing that seeks to represent a subject that remains f luid and dynamic, and that gestures towards variety. Djebar’s narrator in Vaste est la prison marks a conscious move towards a writing that captures movement, and which does not stop the f low of time. She exclaims: ‘Longtemps, j’ai cru qu’écrire, c’était mourir, mourir lentement. Déplier à tâtons un linceul de sable ou de soie sur ce que l’on a connu piaffant, palpitant. L’éclat de rire — gelé. Le début de sanglot — pétrifié’ [For a long time I believed that writing meant dying, slowly dying, groping to unfold a shroud of sand or silk over things that one had felt trembling and pawing the ground. A burst of laughter — frozen. The beginnings of a sob — turned to stone].40 Playing on terms that evoke the veiling traditions of her Algerian culture, Djebar’s narrator suggests that the practice of representing (or unveiling) a subject results in enveloping it in a different fabric, in its shroud. Thus she evokes a tension between representing and fixing in time. This tension is similarly evoked by Marion with regard to representing the divine. He argues that the divine may only be seen through idolatrous representation, but that to see or represent God in this way is to kill him by freezing him in that moment of representation: ‘Nul ne peut voir Dieu, sans que Dieu ne meurt’ [no one can see God without God dying].41 Djebar’s use of the past tense in her narrator’s ref lection suggests that she ultimately finds an escape from this impasse between language and the incommunicable through literature. In her autobiographical novel Nulle Part dans la maison de mon père, Djebar echoes and elaborates the voice of her narrator in Vaste. In both cases, writing is connected to the notion of silence. In

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Vaste, the narrator speaks of a ‘silence de l’écriture’ [silence of writing],42 whilst in Nulle Part, Djebar entitles her ref lection on autobiographical writing ‘ “Silence sur soie” ’ [‘silence on Silk’].43 In both cases, writing is also connected to religious ritual. In Vaste, the narrator muses: ‘Écrire sur le passé, les pieds empêtrés dans un tapis de prière, qui ne serait pas même une natte de jute ou de crin, jetée au hasard sur la poussière d’un chemin à l’aurore’ [Writing about the past, my feet wrapped up in a prayer rug which was not even a jute or horsehair mat tossed down somewhere on the dust of a dawn road].44 In Nulle Part, the experience of autobiographical writing is compared to the ‘silice qui, chaque jour, chaque nuit, écorche la peau de l’ascète qui ne cesse, prière après prière, de se mettre à nu devant Dieu’ [hair shirt which, every day and every night, scratches the skin of the ascetic who ceaselessly bares himself before God, prayer after prayer].45 The earlier image in Vaste of writing on a prayer mat comes from Djebar’s Islamic heritage, and suggests a reckoning with oneself in the eyes of God, since the prayer mat is the site where an individual communes with God. The latter allusion to penitent monks is borrowed from another religious tradition, as Djebar acknowledges, and fills a confessional lacuna in her own heritage: ‘cette confession (et je remarque à temps que ma culture musulmane d’origine ignore ou s’écarte de ce dévoilement, du moins face à un prêtre) peut m’inciter pourtant à battre mon culpe, tout en f lattant peut-être ma vanité d’écrivain’ [this confession (and I note here that my Muslim culture of origin does not know or avoids such an unveiling, before a priest at any rate) allows me the opportunity to unburden my conscience whilst perhaps f lattering my vanity as a writer].46 The devotional image shifts from one religion to another. This new idiom is, however, adapted and personalized. Djebar asserts that she evokes the sensual feel of silk because of the effect ‘soyeux’ [silky] as opposed to ‘torturant’ [agonizing] of the confession, which has the potential to be a ‘source de lucidité, voire de sérénité’ [a source of lucidity, of serenity even].47 The reference to silk also feminizes the masculine allusion to an ‘ascète’, contrasting the sensuousness of the silk with the concept of being ascetic whilst, in addition, it specifically evokes the traditional silk veil of Algerian women. The image is both feminized and somewhat Islamized, suggesting the meticulous degree to which idiom is controlled and manipulated in the text. Moreover, the combined images of solitary confession spoken in the silence of the desert, as well as of the later more expressive and public forms of confession, evoke a tension between silent and more expressive and more communicative forms of speech. Both addresses are doubly endowed with a sense of validity and futility. On the one hand, the image of speaking into the desert suggests a language that is subsumed by silence, whilst the more publicly expressive speech, although it is heard, does not succeed in capturing the void it aspires to overcome. Both instances of language, however, serve to appease (albeit f leetingly) an impulse, a desire to negotiate the void through language. In this way, language becomes self-ref lexive, evoking void and silence without undermining their inherent qualities of distance and unattainability. There is a sense in which for Djebar, the highly manipulated idiom reaches towards something beyond grasp. Writing attempts to fill a void which cannot be filled. In some respects, this literary compulsion to reach out towards a void resonates with Derrida’s understanding of the complicated relationship


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between literature and its subject. In an interview with Richard Kearney, Derrida claims that language searches ‘for the “other” and for that in language that is the “other” of language’.48 As with Marion’s empty space, the Derridian ‘other’ is what remains irreducible to systems of language. In Derrida’s words, it defies the idea that ‘the real is knowable, that is, essentially rational’.49 Timothy Clark defines the other as ‘what knowledge must concern itself with once the disjunction between being and knowing is acknowledged’.50 As in Nancy’s L’Intrus, the ‘other’ represents the lack of synchronicity between experience and language, making it impossible to render experience into language fully. Yet language is persistently compelled to try. Derrida claims that ‘the other [...] is beyond language and [...] summons language’.51 Derrida defines literature as ‘certain movements which have worked around the limits of our logical concepts, certain texts which make the limits of our language tremble, exposing them as divisible and questionable’.52 Djebar’s texts operate in this supplementary, excessive way, highlighting the lacunae in tightly woven political and religious public discourse. They do this by narrating experiences and ideas that do not fit into other discourses, thus challenging their absoluteness and gesturing towards gaps in knowledge that cannot be filled at all. Djebar compares her autobiographical writing to a silk veil, as suggested above, behind which is the self: Derrière la ‘soie’ de ce silence se tapit le soi, ou le moi, qui s’écrivant peu à peu s’arrime, en se coulant dans le sillon de l’écriture, aux replis de la mémoire et à son premier ébranlement — un ‘soi-moi’, plus anonyme, car déjà à demi effacé.53 [Behind the ‘silk’ of this silence is woven the self, or the me which, through writing, forms itself little by little, f lowing through the furrows of writing, in the folds of memory and at its source — a ‘me-self ’, more anonymous, because already half effaced.]

The fact that the hidden self begins to take on the qualities both of language and of the textiles to which language is compared suggests that language complicates the boundaries between itself and its subject. The lost subject of language remains radically absent and beyond grasp. Djebar makes this explicit in relation to the author’s own body, where she claims: Dans ce long tunnel de cinquante ans d’écriture se cherche, se cache et se voile un corps de fillette, puis de jeune fille, mais c’est cette dernière, devenue femme mûre, qui, en ce jour, esquisse le premier pas de l’autodévoilement. [Sought through this fifty-year-long tunnel of writing is the hidden and veiled body of a young girl and then a young lady. But it is this latest body, now a mature woman, who today takes the first step towards unveiling herself.]54

This earlier body is no longer attainable, however, and from the ‘écriture qui tente de ramener un lointain passé’ [writing that attempts to restore a distant past], the ‘narratrice’ [narrator] emerges ‘peu éclairée’ [little elucidated].55 Text, ultimately for Djebar, is an ‘architecture arachnéenne faite de multiples silences’ [arachnid structure constructed of multiple silences]56 whilst ‘toute entreprise d’écriture s’étire en silence’ [every endeavour to write diffuses into silence] and is an ‘écriture

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en fuite’ [writing on the run].57 For Djebar, writing is ultimately a discourse of silence. It emerges from an absence or void, and whilst it reaches towards what is lost, it maintains its sense of loss and distance. Perec’s work also increasingly moves towards representational modes of writing that demonstrate a consciousness of their inability to encapsulate reality in full. In early ref lections on his understanding of the realist role of literature, Perec claims that what makes literature a work of art is its capacity to: Ordonne[r] le monde [...] le fai[re] apparaître dans sa cohérence [...] le dévoile[r], au-delà de son anarchie quotidienne, en intégrant et en dépassant les contingences qui en forment la trame immédiate, dans sa nécessité et dans son mouvement. Ce dévoilement, cette mise en ordre du monde, c’est ce que nous appelons le réalisme.58 [Order the world, [...] to make it appear in its coherent state, [...] to remove the veil of daily anarchy on its surface, to absorb and go beyond the immediately visible nexus of haphazard happenings that govern movement. This unveiling, this ordering of the world, this is what we call realism.]

Perec speaks of the world in almost structuralist terms, suggesting that beneath a superficial chaos, the world is underpinned by a single mathematically formulaic order that is ‘cohérente’ [coherent]. For Perec, it is the job of the writer to look beyond the surface of the world, to extract what he or she sees as its pure mathematical essence, and to attempt to represent this within literary works. This literary/mathematical alchemy is to offer glimpses of everyday life, arranged by the author of literary works so that they appear not to be random, but to gesture towards a hidden space of governance that, if alluded to or unearthed in literature, gives a sense of meaning and rhythm to the world. Amongst the texts measured by Perec against his definition of realism in his essay ‘Pour une littérature réaliste’ [Towards a Realist Literature] in Les Lignes Générales is Italo Svevo’s La Conscience de Zeno, a fictional diary written by Zeno, a nicotine addict, for the benefit of his psychoanalyst. Perec asserts that the importance of this and the other two novels discussed is that ‘l’essentiel y est ce qui n’est pas dit; tout y est masque ou mensonge; les mots cachent quelque chose: ce sont des livres à lire entre les lignes’ [the most important therein is that which is not inscribed; it is all masks and mendacity. The words conceal something. These are books to be read between the lines].59 Perec here emphasises the importance of writing absence into a text. Furthermore, what places this novel slightly above the others is that it is not merely a representation of the psychology of an individual, but that this individual psychological journey is set against the wider backdrop of the protagonist’s socioeconomic milieu. These specifications match those of the nineteenth-century realist novel. Yet Perec claims, nonetheless, that Zeno ‘n’est [...] pas un livre réaliste’ [is not a realist novel]60 and this is because the historical context of the novel, which is the ‘effondrement des structures sociales et économiques de l’Empire autrichien au début du XXe siècle’61 [the collapse of the social and economic structures of the Austrian Empire at the start of the twentieth century],62 is ‘conçu sans limites’ [conceived without limits]. Perec claims that what he would identify as socioeconomic characteristics specific to a particular era are represented in the novel as


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‘la nature même de la société, et non des caractéristiques historiques transformables’ [the very nature of society, and not characteristics that change throughout history].63 The historically specific is construed as universal truth. Perec thus concludes that: Il apparaît donc que cette mise en rapport du particulier et du général, de l’homme et de la société qui l’entoure, des contradictions individuelles et des contradictions de la vie sociale [...] n’est pas suffisante et ne saurait donner naissance à une œuvre réaliste.64 [Thus it appears that this bringing together of the particular and the general, of man and wider society, of individual contradictions and the contradictions of social life [...] is not enough and would not produce a work of realism.]

The effect of a novel like Zeno is that: Elle reste au niveau d’un présent éternel; elle restitue le monde sans l’organiser vraiment [...] Zeno se limite à une réalité fragmentaire: il croit comprendre le monde et le décrire tel qu’il est. Mais cela est impossible: le décrire, c’est le décrire tel qu’il bouge.65 [It remains at the level of an eternal present. It reconstructs the world without really organizing it [...] Zeno restricts himself to a fragmented reality. He believes himself to understand the world and to describe it as it is. But that is impossible. To describe it is to describe the way it moves.]

Zeno represents only the limited vision of a single man, and therefore gives the impression that the world is ‘fragmentaire’ [fragmentary]. The insights imparted by the novel are far too locally grounded to contribute to a wider sense of reality. These ref lections offered by Perec early on in his career (the essays in Les Lignes générales are written between 1959 and 1963) differ from ref lections offered on the relationship between language and reality at the end of his career in the early 1980s. Perec moves away from the notion that a single linguistic code can be considered adequate representation for all aspects of reality. In his essay on classification feat­ ured in Penser/Classer [Thoughts of Sorts] and written in the early 1980s, Perec ref lects that the task of categorizing a set of disparate experiences and thoughts is ultimately not a process of bringing things together and rendering them more cohesive, but of fragmenting them further: ‘Ma “pensée” ne pouvait réf léchir qu’en s’émiettant, se dispersant, qu’en revenant sans cesse à la fragmentation qu’elle prétendait mettre en ordre’ [[my] thinking [was made] unthinkable except in splinters, in dispersion, forever returning to the fragmentation it was supposed to try to put in order].66 The essay goes on to demonstrate the myriad ways in which objects, letters, words, and experiences may be grouped together (alphabetically, chronologically, thematically, based on personal memories and associations, or on complex codes of classification like the Dewey Decimal system). Even these rigorous and time-honoured codes for Perec harbour a befuddling senselessness. He muses that there is no reason why A should come sequentially before B, since both letters are of the same worth. Yet letters are automatically hierarchized based on their place in the alphabetical sequence, such that the letter ‘A’ becomes a badge of excellence. Perec shows himself to be critical of reductive methods of categorization that attempt to force a sense of logic or pattern between phenomena. For example, he calls the attempt at forging

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a sense of logic between the objects at the Great Exhibition in London by insisting on their common educational or artistic purpose ‘banale’.67 He expounds further on the impulse to: Vouloir distribuer le monde entier selon un code unique; une loi universelle réagirait l’ensemble des phénomènes: deux hémispheres, cinq continents, masc­ ulin et feminin, animal et végétal, singulier pluriel, droite gauche, quatre saisons, cinq sens, six voyelles, douze mois, vingt-cinq lettres.68 Malheureuse­ment ça ne marche pas, ça n’a même jamais commencé à marcher, ça ne marchera jamais. N’empêche que l’on continuera encore longtemps à catégoriser tel ou tel animal selon qu’il a un nombre impair de doigts ou des cornes creuses.69 [It’s so tempting to try to sort out the whole world by a single code; to find a universal law ruling over all phenomena; two hemispheres, five continents, masculine and feminine, animal and vegetable, singular and plural, left and right, four seasons, five senses, six vowels, seven days, twelve months, twentysix letters. Unfortunately it doesn’t work, it’s never even had the slightest hope of working, it will never work. That won’t prevent people carrying on for many more years trying to categorize this or that animal according to whether it has an even number of toes or hollow horns.]

Perec identifies two approaches to list-making: Il y a dans toute énumération deux tentations contradictories; la première est de TOUT recenser, la seconde est d’oublier tout de même quelque chose; la première voudrait clôturer définitivement la question, la seconde la laisse ouverte; entre l’exhaustif et l’inachevé, l’énumération me semble ainsi être, avant toute pensée (et avant tout classement), la marque même de ce besoin de nommer et de réunir sans lequel le monde (‘la vie’) resterait pour nous sans repères.70 [There are two contradictory temptations in any act of enumeration: the first is to cover everything, the second is to leave something out all the same; the first temptation would seek to close the question for ever, the second would leave it open; between the exhaustive and the incomplete, enumeration seems to me to be, prior to any sort of thought (and prior to any thought of sorting), the intrinsic mark of our need to name and to collect without which the world (‘life’) would be unmappable.]

Perec thus moves away from a belief in the universal, in a single code that subsumes the whole world. The application of methods of classification that attempt to domesticate the world becomes somewhat arbitrary and ineffective, yet a necessary part of finding one’s own bearings. The imperfection of codes demonstrates the fact that the phenomena that codes seek to classify ultimately remain beyond their grasp. Once again, this evokes the impasse between language and the excess it seeks to describe which is highlighted by Marion, and which is discussed in relation to Djebar above. The encounter with withdrawal or excess creates the impulse to speak and to understand that empty space, assimilating it to an intellectual framework that places it within grasp. Perec’s literary use of multiple ludic codes doubly highlights a strong desire for control over linguistic space and the phenomena it evokes from beyond itself, as well as understanding that these phenomena ultimately elude language. The fact that codes are employed within a literary, as opposed to any


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other epistemological, framework allows for a surfacing of the tension between expression and silence. Unlike any epistemological discourse, literature allows for a slippage between discourses and codes, each one undermining the other. The impulse to evoke silence and empty space and to assimilate it within the literary context becomes a means of undermining as opposed to affirming systematizing approaches. Literary discourse thus highlights both its own incompleteness in representing any subject, as well as the limits of logic built into any other discourse due to gaps in knowledge and experience, and in the ability to express these linguistically. These ideas are played out in Perec’s La Disparition and Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française, to which I will now turn respectively. Georges Perec: La Disparition Perec’s La Disparition presents a tension between affirming a certain notion of the divine as vengeful in explanation of the disappearances of the novel’s characters, and suggesting that the divine, as in Marion’s thinking, is a blank space of withdrawal that remains beyond the reach of any attribute or description. The language of the text possesses a labyrinthine quality that problematizes its relationship to any subject and gives it a quality of opacity. This is enhanced by the text’s ludic qualities, which invite multiple levels of engagement. Heather Mawhinney argues that: In essence one may say that in La Disparition when one reads the narrative the physical book/text disappears but the ‘e’ is present, and when one views the text typographically the physical book/text ‘appears’ but the ‘e’ is absent, and one constantly alternates between the reading and the viewing. Because only one or the other, viewing or reading, is possible at any one time, and the reader is enticed and encouraged by the author to alternate between the two, one may say that that one true reading of La Disparition lies between the viewing and the reading.71

Readers are confused about the main focus for their attention, with many of their faculties engaged at once. They find at times that they are looking at language and cannot see beyond it with ease. The following ref lection by Augustus B. Clifford, inspired by the protagonist’s name Anton Voyl, suggests the ways in which language can be sonorously and etymologically absorbing, creating a tangled nexus of associated sounds and significations: Voilà, ou vois-la, ou Voyou ou Voyal? qui, par associations, provoquait un amas, un magma incongru: substantifs, locutions, slogans, dictons, tout un discours confus, brouillon, dont il croyait à tout instant sortir, mais qui insistait, imposant l’agaçant tourbillon d’un fil vingt fois rompu, vingt fois cousu, mots sans filiation, où tout lui manquait, la prononciation, la transcription, la signification, mais tissant pourtant un f lux, un f lot continu, compact, clair. [Fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? — a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord that would split again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or

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transcription, but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a f lux, a continuous compact and lucid f low.]72

The book operates separately as a visual code and a textual one, with readers moving between both of these, attempting to grasp what is intended in each case, and how these fit together. As Mawhinney suggests, there is a sense in which something remains suspended between the two. A space of silence is created between them. The text addresses the particular question of literary language directly where it refers to the novel Voyl is writing. This aims to detail the situation that will lead to his own disappearance, as well as that of his kinsmen. He wishes to forewarn them, but wonders whether his writing will successfully communicate anything: Mon roman pouvait s’accomplir, il faudrait l’accomplir; mais poursuivait-il, s’il s’accomplissait, n’ouvrirait-il pas sur un savoir si clair, si pur, si dur, qu’aucun parmi nous l’ayant lu, n’y survivrait un instant. Car, poursuivait-il, la fiction a toujours voulu qu’il n’y ait qu’un Aignan pour s’affranchir du sphinx. Aignan disparu, nul logos triomphant n’offrira plus jamais son consolant pouvoir. Donc, concluait-il, nul discours n’abolira l’hasard. [I could finish my story, I would; but if it truly had a conclusion, would it not contain a fund of wisdom of such cold hard purity, of such crystal clarity, that not any of us, just dipping into it, could think to go on living? For (Vowl scrawls away) it’s a quality of fiction that it allows of only a solitary Aignan to rid us of a Sphinx. With Aignan put out of action, no triumphant Word will again afford us consolation. Thus, he concluded, no discourse will ever abolish chance.]73

Voyl’s novel is one that seeks to communicate the secret of his clan to those that may be affected by it. His resignation stems from the fact that such a communication would not serve to save his fellow clan members from their fate. The message is both urgent and futile. Its communicative power seems to be hampered by the fact that it is a ‘roman’. The passage evokes a complex image of literary and mythological references, both spelling out and performing the constrained nature of literary utterance. Voyl refers to the Greek myth of the riddle of the sphinx, according to which a sphinx stood guard at the gates of the Greek city of Thebes and would pose a riddle to travellers wishing to enter the city, admitting only those who could solve it. According to the myth, Oedipus solves the sphinx’s riddle. In Voyl’s novel, the name Aignan replaces that of Oedipus, which is inappropriate both because the name ‘Oedipus’ contains an ‘e’, and because Oedipus enacts a generational reversal of the events in La Disparition, killing his father whereas Voyl and his siblings are hunted down by an ancestor. Aignan is a French saint, historically believed to have helped protect the city of Orléans against foreign invaders, and is associated here with a type of shibboleth, a password that distinguishes one people from another. Through the figure of Aignan, the text returns the reader to the theme of exclusion experienced by communities of outsiders such as the Jews in France. The idea that the ‘logos’ disappears with Aignan and withdraws its ‘consolant pouvoir’ alludes beyond Aignan’s solution to the riddle, to a lack of divine justice, suggesting that some communities are treated better than others by the divine. This is undermined somewhat, however, through the levelling use of ‘disparu’ [disappeared] to describe


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the ultimate demise of Aignan. In the end Aignan, like Voyl and his brothers and sisters, disappears from the world too. Voyl’s conclusion that ‘nul discours n’abolira l’hasard’ [no discourse will ever abolish chance] refers to Mallarmé’s seminal poem ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira l’hasard’, suggesting Voyl’s continued struggle with borrowed idiom. The idea of ‘hasard’ also represents the difficulty he has in reducing events to any system of logic. ‘Hasard’ does not seem to refer to chance here, but to a reality beyond comprehension. Alison James makes the case that chance in the work of Perec is represented as arbitrary and chaotic merely because it is experienced as such by characters, but that his texts are multi-tiered and attempt simultaneously to systematize chance. She suggests that Perec’s ‘Tout-Puissant’ [All-Powerful], who shapes character fates in La Disparition, is the author himself who writes them. She notes also, however, that there is a ‘frequent association’ of chance ‘with some kind of transcendent force’.74 ‘Hasard’ here becomes the incomprehensible manifestation of the divine. The fact that ‘nul discours’ can abolish it suggests that the divine, as Marion argues, ultimately remains beyond discourse. Mallarmé’s poem famously juxtaposes freely arranged poetic text with a vast expanse of blank page, and has invited as much critical speculation about its blanks as it has about its poetic text. It is read by Roger Pearson as a struggle between order and chaos that ensues from the loss of the rigid poetic form of the alexandrine. Malcolm Bowie suggests that it is impossible to know precisely when a clause is at its end, and speaks of the ‘enervating neutrality’75 of the blank spaces in readers’ quests to find the break between phrases. The idea that the blank allows for myriad suppositions about its relationship with text, responding to these with an ‘enervating neutrality’, is analogous to the relationship between text and blank or silence proposed in La Disparition. Lamenting the disappearance of his adopted son Douglas Haig, Clifford expresses his distress in terms of a spreading blankness, which represents the absence of meaning to his distress: L’‘Un blanc’ n’ouvrirait-il pas proprio motu sur sa contradiction, blanc signal du non-blanc, blanc d’un album où courut un stylo noircissant l’inscription où s’accomplira sa mort: ô vain papyrus aboli par son Blanc; discours d’un nondiscours, discours maudit montrant du doigt l’oubli blotti croupissant au mitan du Logos. [This ‘a blank’ thus unfolds proprio motu out of its own contradiction, a vacant signal of that which isn’t in fact vacant, a blank such as you might find in a book across which an author’s hand inks in an inscription implicating its own abolition: O, vain papyrus drawn back, unavoidably back, into its own blank womb; a tract of a non-tract, a nihilistic tract localising that oblivion huddling, crouching, within a word.]76

The black ink of writing is designated here as a space that is in oppositional conti­ nuum with the blank, evoking it through blackness (the ‘blanc’, in French, being associated with the colour white). The connection of writing to the blank, however, makes it a ‘discours d’un non-discours’ [tract of a non-tract]. A discourse that seeks to represent the blank ultimately does this by being overpowered by it, by being sapped of its discursive properties. Clifford goes on to denounce the written word

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as: ‘mot mutilant, unproductif, mot vacant, attribut insultant d’un trop-signifiant où va triumphant la suspicion, la privation, l’illusion, sillon lacunal, canal vacant, ravin lacanial, vacuum à l’abandon, où nous sombrons sans fin dans la soif d’un non-dit’ [a castrating word, a f laccid word, a vacant word connoting an insultingly obvious signification, in which suspicion, privation and illusion all triumph, a lacunary furrow, a vacant canal, a Lacanian chasm, a cast-off vacuum thirstily sucking us into this thing unsaid].77 Clifford is frustrated by what he perceives to be the inadequacy and weakness of language in the face of the blank that it attempts to qualify, but which remains untamed by language. Language is shown to cower before an ultimate withdrawn ‘Logos’, to which Clifford refers. The very distance of the divine is portrayed as cruel at times in the text. When Douglas Haig disappears, we are told that ‘Nul Tout-Puissant n’offrira son pardon à Douglas Haig’ [Nor will God grant Douglas Haig a pardon].78 Later on, describing the conditions of an impoverished community, whose only possible way out of misery was to die, Arthur Wilburg Savorgnan sarcastically suggests that ‘Allah, dans sa compassion, s’inclinait parfois: un typhus malin, un faux croup supprimait alors l’ayant droit putative’ [Allah in his compassion occasionally did grant such a wish: a typhoon blowing up without warning, a spasmodic croup, would in fact kill him off ].79 Thus the confusion caused by the withdrawn divine, which only seems to manifest itself through spreading fear and misfortune, makes its quality of withdrawal one of vengefulness. This notion is undermined by the fact that the text also upholds the idea that the very distance of the divine places it beyond human expression and conceptualization. Stella Béhar argues that: ‘by managing to suppress the most common letter of the French lexicon, Perec certainly pulls an extraordinary “coup” which [...] represents a critique of language and a liberation from logos’.80 The implication here is that, through the missing ‘e’, language is defamiliarized and endowed with a sense of disjointedness that undermines its connection to a divine Logos, to an underlying and authoritative sense of guaranteed meaning that is inherent in monotheistic discursive structures of language. Béhar notes the fact that ‘e’ is the most common letter of the French language, and thus the implicit connection between language and the divine through use of the term ‘logos’ suggests the withdrawal of the divine, leaving behind a language that is rendered independent through its idiosyncrasy, but which continues to be constrained and haunted by the withdrawal. The blank as an empty, silent space, takes the place of the Logos, transforming every utterance into a non-utterance. The notion of a vengeful God or Logos is thus undermined by the withdrawal of the letter ‘e’, by the prevalent blankness, silence, and absence that underpin the text, which suggest a divine well beyond the reaches of a linguistic qualification. Left on his own at the end of the text, Aloysius Swann ref lects that: Chacun, parmi nous, offrit sa contribution, sa participation. Chacun, s’avançant plus loin dans l’obscur du non-dit, a ourdi jusqu’à sa saturation, la configuration d’un discours qui, au fur qu’il grandissait, n’abolissait l’hasard du jadis qu’au prix d’un future aparaissant sans solution. [All of us [...] driving our plot forward with our contribution to it, our participation in it, moving on and on, braving its paralysing taboo, concocting


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Swann thus dismisses the story of the disappearances as one that neither changes the past nor allows for any profound sense of closure. The mystery, through the evocation of certain circumstances and details, is only superficially resolved. There is a sense in which it runs deeper than the text, on a level that text cannot attain. To conclude, through the evocation of multiple codes and their inadequacies, Perec’s text highlights an empty space that sits at the limits of all codes and linguistic arrangements, and that cannot be subsumed by these, thus suggesting a space of silence beyond the reach of language. This space becomes associated with the divine through the text’s continual allusions to a vengeful deity at work behind the inevitable disappearances of the novel’s characters, who are marked out for their inescapable fate from birth. Through the optic of Marion’s understanding of the divine as empty space, and of silence as the best form of expressing the divine, it becomes possible to associate the blank in Perec’s text with a similar understanding of the divine as distant and withdrawn beyond any conceptualization. The ‘blanc’ is frequently capitalized in the novel, thus further facilitating a connection between the blank and the divine. The impenetrable blank in the text undermines any notion of a vengeful God, since the divine is beyond words. The divine, instead, is presented as a void that only becomes visible through the black ink of writing. This is not a writing that describes the divine, or that is capable of ref lecting on its will and purpose. It is merely capable of alluding to the blank as that which eludes writing, making language gesture towards its own shortcomings and inadequacies. The novel demonstrates the ways in which literary language is an expression of the ‘non-dit’, suggesting its success at evoking the inexpressible, without making any expressive utterance about it. In this way, it is a space of discursive silence, making it an ideal textual space for evoking the divine as empty space through silence, as advocated by Marion. Assia Djebar: La Disparition de la langue française In Djebar’s La Disparition de la langue française, Berkane returns to Algeria to write his own story before his disappearance, much as Anton Voyl attempts to record his past in a novel before he disappears. The difference is that Voyl disappears in spite of writing his novel, whilst Berkane disappears because he writes his. The fact that Voyl’s novel is perceived to have no impact works as a metaphor for the silent role of the literary. Similarly, despite the fact that Berkane disappears because of his writing, his manuscript remains unread at the time of his disappearance. It is the fact of writing that causes him to be targeted, as opposed to any utterance within the written text. The content of the text, it seems, is of little import to his assassins. It is the fact of writing, and in particular of writing in French, that is considered by them to be a subversive act. In this way, Djebar’s text posits multilingualism and the act of imaginative writing in particular as means of opening up or un-asserting that which is presented as the tightly woven public religious narrative. Berkane’s

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imaginative memoir is a threat because of its potential to undo that narrative by occupying a more plural and nuanced ground. Berkane is believed to be killed by vengeful religious factions, who have little tolerance for those who write, and particularly those who write in French, a language that undermines the national Quranic identity to which religious (and other nationalist) groups aspire through the imposition of Arabic. The quality of vengefulness is thus attributed to a discursive strand within society, as opposed to the divine itself, as is done in Perec’s novel, where attempts are made to project a quality of vengefulness onto the divine. Djebar’s text, whilst it alludes to the ways in which the divine is conceptualized amongst certain groups, makes little allusion to the concept of the divine itself. Different attitudes are implicitly contrasted by the fact that Djebar’s protagonists encounter an empty space at the limits of language in ways which are not grounded in religious discourse, whilst they are up against hostile groups that wish to impose a literal understanding of divine law upon the nation. There are two silences in the novel. There is a silence that is the excess beyond language, and the terrible silence or void created through the political assassination of writers. I will explore here the idea that the text’s silence with regard to the divine for which political religious groups claim to speak is a subtle attribution of the quality of silence to that divine. In this way, the literary evocation of silence or non-utterance echoes the silent divine more effectively, thus undermining political advocates of the divine who claim to execute divine will. The silence beyond language is subtly evoked in Djebar’s text through the use of multiple languages, none of which seem complete, and all of which need to be supplemented by each other. Language is presented as an inadequate trace of a space of withdrawal beyond it. The constant shift in language is accompanied by a sense of restlessness, a constant displacement of bodies, which move between places and between lovers in search of a sense of fixity and settlement, but which carry around a sense of displacement and alienation that is only ever temporarily appeased. Both the f lux between languages and between places is presented in the novel as the circling of an unattainable locus. The writing that emerges as a product of this search is inconclusive, communicating only restlessness and the inability to penetrate the silence. In this way, as in Perec’s La Disparition, the literary is shown to express a silence deemed more befitting of the divine than any discourse proposing fixed definitions of it. Djebar’s novel presents a strong language consciousness, and highlights the ways in which French, Arabic, and very occasionally English, are at work with one another, each used to supplement the other, highlighting the sense of incompletion within each language. The novel features many instances where the language in which a character formulates a thought or resolution, experiences a memory, or speaks or writes to another character is explicitly stated. From the very beginning, the novel launches into myriad references to and ref lections on the languages of Berkane. The opening of the novel features Berkane, looking out to sea from the villa in which he is writing, musing on his recent return to what he calls his ‘homeland’ in English. Berkane’s reasons for thinking the word in English are unclear. The fact that it comes to him as he looks out to sea, a synaptic space between lands to


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which Berkane remains close throughout most of the novel, suggests, however, that the word may be chosen for its quality of neutrality, evoking a space that is neither France nor Algeria. The text then moves on to Berkane’s sentimental musings in Arabic: ‘de retour, soupiré-je dans la langue de ma mère (au lieu du berbère, le dialecte Arabe d’el Djazira)’ [back, I sighed in my mother tongue (instead of in Berber, the Arabic dialect of the people of el Djazira].82 Thereafter, the third-person narrator, who frequently alternates with Berkane throughout the novel before taking over the narrative after his death, remembers the way in which Berkane came to the decision to leave France, this time pondering his future in French, making its usage here a more practical and logistical one: ‘ “Sans projet! Je ne me vois aucun avenir!” avait-il constaté tout haut, et en français, alors qu’il tournait seul dans son logis’ [‘without a plan! I see no future for myself ’, he had said out loud, and in French, as he paced around his lodgings alone].83 Thus from the outset, the novel offers a taxonomy of the languages and linguistic registers and volumes used by Berkane. Continuing in this vein, the novel goes on to feature a letter in French to Berkane’s lover Marise in France. In it, Berkane muses that he was always unable to address his lover using French terms of endearment during moments of closeness and intimacy. He remembers that, unable to say ‘chérie’ [my love], he opts instead for Marise’s stage name, Marlyse, thus conversely using her public name to signal the intense closeness between them. For Berkane, who enjoys using his native Arabic dialect in moments of intimacy, the name Marlyse is more easily reduced to three salient sounds than ‘Marise’, calling to mind the foundational structures of Arabic, which derives most of its words from three letter roots: ‘(Mar-ly-se) [...] fusaient deux, trois vocables arabes de mon enfance, étrangement ceux de l’amitié, presque de la consanguinité, qui, s’accouplant à ton nom de théâtre, exprimaient mon attendrissement’ [(Mar-ly-se) combined two or three Arabic syllables from my childhood, strangely those of friendship, of consanguinity almost, which, brought together in your stage name, expressed my tenderness].84 Berkane laments the fact that Marise could never understand the Arabic words of love that were inspired by their romance: ‘les mots de notre intimité, et leurs sons dispersés, tu les entendais comme une musique, seulement’ [the words of our intimacy, and their dispersed sounds, you heard them only as music].85 The text also alludes to the space of silence beyond language whilst Berkane is with his Arab lover, Nadjia, in Algeria. There are moments where the lovers seem to be reaching the edge of a language or discourse. Nadjia, for example, responds to Berkane’s sweet nothings in Arabic by saying in French ‘ne parlons plus! Les mots, qu’est-ce qu’ils apportent de plus?’ [let us not speak any more. What more can words give?].86 There is a sense in which, at the limits of one language, lies the start of another, in between the two lies a space of silence. It is at this intersection between Arabic and French, for example, that Berkane and Nadjia experience what the text calls ‘le f lux des silences assombris!’ [the f low of sombre silences].87 The term ‘f lux’ once again calls to mind the motion of the sea, an image that is upheld by the term ‘assombris’, evocative of the dark depths of marine space. The connection between the sea and writing is a Quranic one, with the scripture

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asserting that: ‘Say: “If the ocean were ink (wherewith to write out) the words of my Lord, sooner would the ocean be exhausted than would the words of my Lord, even if we added another ocean like it, for its aid” ’.88 The fact that the sea is vast, blue, and f luid makes it comparable to a limitless supply of ink, while its constant state of f lux puts forward the notion of a writing in motion, of language that never attains a level of fixity and finality. Through the proximity of the sea to Berkane’s experience of writing, the text draws implicit parallels between the Quranic and the literary. The Quranic image of the sea as a well of ink for the inscription of divine discourse suggests a certain vastness and bottomlessness to that discourse, which undermines the sense of fixity and finality with which politicized religious discourse wishes to endow it. Moreover, the rolling f luidity of the sea suggests linguistic f luency and rhythm. The novel persistently ref lects on the sonorous and haptic qualities of language, and literary and romantic registers are constantly associated with a musically rhythmic quality. As mentioned above, for example, Marise enjoys the sonorous qualities of an Arabic she does not understand. In addition, on first meeting his Algerian lover Nadjia, for example, Berkane remarks that she speaks in a ‘voix de contralto, et dans un français au rythme un peu lent’ [contralto voice, and in a lightly slow-rhythmed French].89 The word ‘rythme’ also arises frequently in passages that describe intimate moments between Berkane and Nadjia: ‘rythme d’accélération [...] rythme du plus profond de mon ouïe’ [quickening rhythm [...] rhythm from the depth of my hearing].90 In contrast to the rhythmic qualities associated with French and, more strongly with local Arabic dialects, the Arabic employed by religious zealots, unlike ‘l’arabe littéraire’ [literary Arabic] of classical Arabic poetry, is denounced by Nadjia as ‘une langue convulsive, dérangée, et qui me semble déviée’ [a jerky, disturbed language, and which seems to me to have veered off course].91 In this way, the literary, through its aesthetic superiority to an angry, jerky, over-literal political discourse, is rendered more effectively evocative of the eloquent language of divine revelation. The text presents a connection between love and the erotic to literary space. Affective and erotic encounters seem to stimulate creative linguistic impulse. Erotic encounter plays out the notions of distance and withdrawal by presenting a strong desire for an unassimilable other. Berkane’s first scripts are letters to Marise that are prompted by a longing for her company, and are thus intended as a trace of her through evoking her memory. Berkane’s insistence on speaking to her in Arabic during moments of intimacy, his Arabization of the constituent phonemes of her name, as well as the fact that he correlates her name with an Arabic term that connotes ‘consanguinité’ [consanguinity], as cited above, betrays a compulsion for assimilation with his lovers. This presents itself even more strongly with Nadjia. Whispering sweet nothings and recounting childhood memories each in their own dialect, they begin to form a common sense of heritage and past. Berkane relates, for example, the way in which Nadjia ‘trouvait des mots d’hier, de l’autre siècle, de nos communs ancétres oubliés, et elle me les offrait ces vocables, l’un après l’autre’ [would find words of yesteryear, of centuries past, of our forgotten common ancestors, and she would offer these terms to me one after the other].92 This desire


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to evoke a common past manifests itself further in their constant reference to Nadjia’s grandmother. Before the start of their brief sexual encounter, Nadjia tells Berkane the story of her grandfather’s assassination for failing to offer sufficient financial support to resistance fighters during the War of Independence. She dwells on the subsequent closeness of her relationship with her grandmother, who would often call her ‘ma reine’ [my queen]. During the sexual liaison that follows, Berkane makes several disquieting references to this ancestral figure. During love-making, he calls Nadjia ‘ “ma reine”, comme disait Lla Rekia’ [‘my queen’, as Lla Rekia would say].93 Undressing Nadjia, Berkane imagines that ‘sa grand-mère veillait là, en fantôme, dans notre chambre’ [the spectre of her grandmother watched over us in our room].94 Nadjia later fantasizes about retiring to live with Berkane in the small home that used to be her grandmother’s. The ancestral spectre of the grandmother seems to lend their liaison some degree of legitimacy, and some prospect of a future together. Berkane demonstrates a persistent desire to acquire closeness to Nadjia through a vocabulary of kinship. He repeatedly addresses Nadjia as ‘Ô ma sœur (ya khti!)’ [my sister].95 He refers to their love as ‘notre endogamie’ [our endogamy],96 and on more than one occasion considers Nadjia his ‘jumeau’ [twin]. The text simultaneously presents a persistent sense of distance between the two lovers, however. Despite their ‘endogamie’, Berkane ref lects that ‘nous sommes semblables, mais pourtant con­traires, silencieux, sourcilleux pareillement’ [we are similar yet opposite, equally silent and particular],97 suggesting that despite his desire to merge with his lover, to assimilate himself into her past, this remains impossible. Even when before him, Nadjia remains withdrawn and unassimilable. Nicholas Harrison98 suggests a certain distance between the lovers that is highlighted by their language in the throes of love. Harrison draws attention to Berkane’s understanding of Nadjia’s words ‘tu me tortures, tu me fais mal’ [you torture me, you hurt me]99 as purely ‘sensuels’ [sensual], and highlights the fact that Berkane’s interpretation is undermined because he has already admitted to being an ‘analphabète’ [illiterate]100 in relation to Nadjia’s body. Erotic encounter in the novel plays out an impulse towards assimilation that can never be fulfilled, and which channels itself into language. Berkane concludes, in this regard, that ‘l’amour-passion n’est point excès de mots, de caresses, de violences dans la fusion qui se prolonge, il est tatouage sur du papier à lire’ [passionate love is not an effusion of words and caresses, an excess of aggressive and prolonged coupling, it is the tattooing of writing paper].101 Writing thus emerges from attempts to reach out to something beyond the self. It chases an unassimilable other. Intense erotic impulse is a common metaphor within Sufi devotional poetry for the desire to unite with the divine. It expresses an intense desire for assimilation with the other, but can only be experienced as a consequence of being firmly grounded within one’s own body and its desires. Thus it represents a longing for the other, but the other’s ultimate withdrawal and the impossibility of assimilation. This makes erotic language well-suited to expressing withdrawal and silence. The more intensely it is expressed, the greater the distance and silence of the desired object. As a site that allows for nostalgic slippages and inconsistencies, the literary is presented as a space that continually undermines itself, and complicates the extra­

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polation of factual knowledge from it. Nicholas Harrison discusses the ambivalent nature of Berkane’s perspective of Algerian women as an example of this. He cites the following passage, in which Berkane discusses the subtle difference between prostitutes and other women: Je voyais bien que les ‘dames de petite vertu’ vivaient simplement, presque comme nos femmes de la famille: même demeure ancienne, même patio modeste. Quand elles sortaient, ces dames, pour faire leurs emplettes, elles se voilaient du voile de soie ou de laine des Algéroises, sauf qu’on les reconnaissaient à leur manière de découvrir parfois leur jambe, ou de laisser amplement ouvert sur leur gorge leur voile qui glissait; et puis, elles se fardaient le visage comme des Européennes [...]. Bref, même nous, enfants, nous savions qu’elles ressemblaient à nos voisines, à nos parentes, mais pas vraiment: nous les reconnaissaient toujours, ces dames!102 [I saw that the ‘ladies of little virtue’ lived simply, almost like our family women: same ancient lodgings, same modest patio. When they went out, these women, in order to do their shopping, they veiled themselves with the silk or woollen veils of the women of Algiers, recognizable only through their way of sometimes revealing a leg, or of leaving their veils to slip wide open at the chest; they would also make up their faces like European women [...]. Even we children knew that they looked like our relatives and neighbours, but not exactly. We always recognized them, these ladies!]

Harrison compares this to an earlier passage in which Berkane remembers the veiled women of his childhood as: ‘des inconnues qui le frôlaient autrefois soulevaient sur le côté le pan de leur voile pour laisser entrevoir au garçonnet qu’il était le galbe de leur jambe, ou leur cheville au-dessus de la sandale élégante!’ [strangers who, in the past, would brush past him, raising to one side the tails of their veils in order to reveal partially to the young boy the curve of their legs, or the ankle above their elegant sandals].103 He asserts that: Même si Berkane insiste ici à plusieurs reprises sur le fait qu’il est possible de reconnaître des prostituées, une certain incertitude semble persister: de façon explicite, en faisant écho à ses propres mots, il attire l’attention du lecteur sur les nombreuses similitudes (qu’il perçoit) entre les femmes identifiées comme prostituées et celles qui ne le sont pas. Les termes ‘femmes’, ‘dames’ et ‘ “dames” ’ sont d’une mobilité déconcertante, et suggèrent des distinctions qui ne sont jamais pleinement visible. [In practice, despite Berkane’s repeated insistence here that prostitutes can be recognized as such, the uncertainty seems to be sustained: explicitly or through echoing his earlier words, he draws attention to numerous (perceived) similarities between women who are identified as prostitutes and others who are not, including the supposedly tell-tale detail of ‘leur manière de découvrir parfois leur jambe’. The terms ‘femmes’, ‘dames’ and ‘ “dames” ’ have a disconcerting mobility, and are suggestive of distinctions that are never fully drawn.]104

The f luidity of imagery here undermines the very sense of distinction between prostitutes and non-prostitutes that Berkane wishes to make. Such a slippage is characteristic of a textual space that is not guided by the principles of logic and


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consistency that govern other discourses. In this way, literary space is a more nuanced discursive space, where things are both said and unsaid. What is asserted within literature is easily undermined by its own inherent dialogism and inconsistency, whilst that which is posited as fixed and certain beyond literature may be undone and delegitimized within it, even if unintentionally. As with Perec’s novel, then, Djebar’s text creates a sense of silent dialogism that is posited against more assertive discourses from beyond literature, which have recourse to means of logic and codification that attempt to organize aspects of reality beyond text. Through use of multiple languages, none of which seem adequate or complete, through use of the motif of the erotic as intense desire for an unassimilable other to express the connection between writing and withdrawal, and through the motif of the sea, which subtly connects the poetic and the Quranic by evoking qualities of f lux and vastness that characterize both, Djebar suggests that literary writing emerges from withdrawal and maintains the sense of silence and absence of that withdrawal. For both Djebar and Perec, the literary is a space of silence, marking the distance between writing as trace on the one hand and its withdrawn subject on the other. Djebar’s text subtly posits itself as a textual space that is more accurately evocative of a divine that is vast and diffuse than the pseudo-religious discourses of national politics, which put forward notions of the divine that are governed by fixity and enclosure, showing suspicion of the literary as a space of discursive excess. Conclusion The novels of both Djebar and Perec propose the literary as a space of silence, featur­ing a multiplicity of voices, codes, narratives, and focalizations that ultimately undermine themselves and each other. Paradoxically, however, the texts do not suggest that silence is conveyed simply by falling quiet, and that it is affirmed through literary discourse. The notion of a text that expresses silence is explored by Blanchot in La Communauté introuvable, where he asserts that: Le trop célèbre et trop ressassé précepte de Wittgenstein, ‘ce dont on ne peut parler, il faut le taire’, indique, bien que, puisqu’il n’a pu en l’énonçant s’imposer silence à lui-même, c’est qu’en définitive, pour se taire, il faut parler. [Wittgenstein’s all too famous and all too often repeated precept, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, there one must be silent’ — given that by enunciating it he has not been able to impose silence on himself — does indicate that in the final analysis one has to talk in order to remain silent.]105

Blanchot goes on to ask ‘mais de quelle sorte de paroles?’ [But with what kinds of words?],106 and inconclusively leaves the matter open: ‘voilà l’une des questions que ce petit livre confie à d’autres, moins qu’ils y répondent que pour qu’ils y veuillent bien la porter et peut-être la prolonger’ [That is one of the questions this little book entrusts to others, not that they may answer it, rather that they may choose to carry it with them, and, perhaps, extend it].107 The question of how to speak and yet maintain a sense of silence is constantly addressed by Perec and Djebar in their two novels, and in both cases it seems that such a paradoxical endeavour is made

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possible through the f luid nature of literature. Both texts engage in different ways with fixed notions of the divine, suggesting that such notions are unsustainable, particularly when examined within the realm of the literary. Literary language, in both cases, is shown to emerge from a space of withdrawal, proposing itself as a trace of that withdrawal, allowing for a connection with it, whilst marking its distance. Following on from Marion’s notion that the divine is best evoked through silence, as opposed to through use of physical and conceptual idols that seek to place a withdrawn divine within human grasp, the way in which Djebar and Perec posit the literary as a space of silence makes it ideal for evoking the divine. Djebar’s novel in particular, because of the political context it describes, shows the extent to which the literary, as an anti-discursive space that undoes or unsays all that is said of the divine truly emphasises the extent to which it may be deemed theologically and politically subversive. Yet her allusions to the vastness of sacred scripture suggest that this is being read reductively, and is not in itself reductive. The following chapter will examine more fully the sense of dichotomy between literary space and political and theological discourses within the Muslim world, the former believed to open up the fixed and enclosed narratives offered within the latter two in such a way as to challenge or undo them. Notes to Chapter 3 1. See Alison James, Constraining Chance (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press), p. 59. 2. Claude Burgelin, Georges Perec (Paris: Seuil: 1988), p. 94. 3. See Jane Hiddleston, Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006). 4. Robert Mortimer, ‘Islamists, Soldiers and Democrats: the Second Algerian War’, Middle East Journal, 50 (1996), 18–39 (p. 21). 5. Ibid., p. 23. 6. Ibid. 7. Ibid., p. 31. 8. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 15–16 9. Ibid., pp. 15–16. 10. Nerval, Les Filles du feu/Les Chimères: Sonnets manuscrits (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), p. 323/Gérard de Nerval, Selected Writings, trans. by Richard Steburth (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 369. 11. Jean-Luc Marion, L’Idole et la distance (Paris: Grasset 1977), p. 21/Jean-Luc Marion The Idol and Distance, trans. by Thomas A. Carlson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), p. 4. 12. Ibid., p. 19/p. 13. 13. Ibid., p. 53/p. 32. 14. Ibid., p. 59/pp. 35–36. 15. Ibid., p. 22/p. 5. 16. Ibid., p. 23/p. 6. 17. Ibid., p. 23–24/p. 6. 18. Christina M. Gschwandtner, Reading Jean-Luc Marion: Exceeding Metaphysics (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), p. 132. 19. Ibid. 20. Ibid. 21. Marion, L’Idole, p. 27/p. 9. 22. Ibid., p. 54/p. 31. 23. Ibid., p. 30/p. 13. 24. Ibid., p. 33/p. 15. 25. Ibid., p. 35/p. 17.


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26. Jean-Luc Nancy, Un jour, les dieux se retirent ... (Paris: William Blake and Co., 2002), p. 7. 27. Marion, L’Idole p. 60/p. 36. 28. Ibid., p. 25/p. 8. 29. Ibid., p. 26/p. 9. 30. Ibid., p. 90–91/p. 65. 31. Ibid., p. 91/p. 65. 32. Ibid., p. 93/p. 68. 33. Ibid., p. 94/p. 68. 34. Ibid. 35. In his later text Le Phénomène érotique: six méditations (Paris: B. Grasset, 2003) love, like the divine, is placed beyond the pale of language. Gschwandtner argues that for Marion, ‘love [...] overcomes and goes beyond being and plays outside of ontological categories’ (in Reading JeanLuc Marion, p. 84). It is therefore no longer a reductive means of representing the divine as he suggests in L’Idole. 36. Marion, L’Idole, p. 95/pp. 68–69. 37. Ibid., p. 97/p. 71. 38. Ibid. 39. See Hiddleston, Assia Djebar. 40. Assia Djebar, Vaste est la Prison (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995), p. 11/So Vast the Prison, trans. by Betsy Wing (New York, Toronto, and London: Seven Stories Press, 1999), p. 11. 41. Marion, L’Idole et la distance, p. 51/p. 29. 42. Djebar, Vaste, p. 11/p. 11. 43. Assia Djebar, Nulle Part dans la maison de mon père (Paris: Fayard, 2007), p. 401. 44. Djebar, Vaste, p. 11/p. 11. 45. Djebar, Nulle Part, p. 401. 46. Ibid. 47. Ibid. 48. Timothy Clark, Derrida, Heidegger, Blanchot: Sources of Derrida’s Notion and Practice of Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 9. 49. Ibid., p. 10. 50. Ibid. 51. Ibid., p. 9. 52. Ibid., p. 17. 53. Djebar, Nulle part, p. 402. 54. Ibid. 55. Ibid., p. 404. 56. Ibid., p. 405. 57. Ibid., p. 406. 58. Georges Perec, L.G.: Une aventure des années soixante (Paris: Seuil, 1992), p. 51. 59. Ibid., p. 55. 60. Ibid. 61. Ibid. 62. Ibid. 63. Ibid. 64. Ibid., p. 56. 65. Ibid. 66. Georges Perec, Penser/classer (Paris: Hachette, 1985), p. 153. Thoughts of Sorts, trans. by David Bellos (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011), p. 146. 67. Ibid., p. 158. 68. A full alphabet minus the letter ‘e’! 69. Perec, Penser/classer, p. 155/pp. 148–49. 70. Ibid., p. 157/pp. 159–60. 71. Heather Mawhinney, ‘The Purloined Letter in Perec’s La Disparition’, The Modern Language Review, 97 (2002), 47–58 (p. 50). 72. Georges Perec, La Disparition (Paris: Denoël, 1969) p. 133/A Void, trans. by Gilbert Adair (London: Vintage, 2008), p. 116.

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73. Ibid., p. 51/pp. 35–36 (the last sentence is my translation). 74. James, Constraining Chance, p. 59. 75. Malcolm Bowie, Mallarmé, and the Art of Being Difficult (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 121. 76. Perec, La Disparition, p. 128/p. 111. 77. Ibid. 78. Ibid., p. 104/p. 88. 79. Ibid., pp. 247–48/p. 227. 80. Stella Béhar, ‘ “Masculine/Feminine”: Georges Perec’s Narrative of the Missing One’, Neophilologus, 79 (1995), 409–19 (p. 414). 81. Perec, La Disparition, p. 304/p. 277. 82. Assia Djebar, La Disparition de la langue française (Paris: Albin Michel, 2003), p. 14. 83. Ibid., p. 15. 84. Ibid., pp. 20–21. 85. Ibid., p. 21. 86. Ibid., p. 111. 87. Ibid. 88. The Quran, 18: 109, trans. by A. Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 89. Djebar, La Disparition, p. 83. 90. Ibid., p. 108. 91. Ibid., p. 118. 92. Ibid.,p. 112. 93. Ibid., p. 104. 94. Ibid., p. 105. 95. Ibid., p. 110. 96. Ibid., p. 128. 97. Ibid. 98. Nicholas Harrison, ‘Le Voile littéraire: la politique oblique d’Assia Djebar’, in Littératures francophones et politiques, ed. by Jean Bessière (Paris: Karthala, 2009), pp. 147–61. 99. Djebar, La Disparition, p. 144. 100. Ibid., p. 143. 101. Ibid., p. 129. 102. Ibid., p. 151. 103. Ibid., p. 69. 104. Harrison, ‘Le Voile littéraire’, p. 151/unpublished translation by Harrison. 105. Maurice Blanchot, La Communauté introuvable (Paris, Minuit, 1983), p. 92/The Unavowable Community, trans. by Pierre Joris (Barrytown: Station Hill, 1988), p.56. 106. Ibid. 107. Ibid.

Chapter 4


Divine Senses of Place: Mecca versus Madina Introduction In the previous three chapters, I have explored the uses of literature as a medium for challenging politicized conceptions of the divine. I have touched on the fact that a common grievance of writers from North Africa and the Middle East is the public use of religious discourse to create a strong sense of collective identity and to introduce legal codes based on narrow interpretations of scripture. Through literature, these writers express a desire to engage with aspects of religious narrative or with the concept of the divine on terms that are sometimes removed from traditional, canonical, or political modes of engaging with monotheism. I have looked at different examples of literature in combination with a variety of theoretical ref lections on the relationship between literature and sacred scripture, or language and the divine. In some cases, these theoretical paradigms have helped to trace a connection between sacred scripture and literature that is latent or difficult to perceive, as in the previous two chapters. Blanchot’s assertion that all literature is a re-expression of the Bible suggests a blanket literary engagement with scripture that goes beyond the thematic. In most cases, the literary and theoretical examples I have used do not explicitly posit themselves as a threat to traditional theology. As I have suggested, most literary examples pit themselves against religious rhetoric in the public sphere. They do so as individual expressions of dissent, and are not aligned with any systematic literary approach to religious dissention. Marion’s challenge to the idea of language as a purveyor of the divine offers itself as a critique of atheism, as opposed to monotheism. Marion is ultimately suggesting that any challenge to the divine can only be a challenge to a discourse that attempts to qualify or contain it. The divine itself remains beyond that which is rejected. Atheism as a blanket concept becomes impossible. There are only atheisms in the plural. These are rebuttals of strands of thought that attempt to define God. Blanchot’s connection between the literary and sacred text, although it may be used to suggest that literature supplants sacred scripture in its inexhaustible rewritings of it, may equally be used to argue the reverse, which is that all literary texts pay homage to scripture as persistently nucleic. Similarly, Nancy works religious heritage into a tradition that is ultimately secular, suggesting that secularism is indebted to theological structures. This only serves to give those structures greater


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weight in a discourse that need not acknowledge them at all. In this chapter I will look at examples of literary and theoretical texts from Abdelwahab Meddeb and Fethi Benslama that attempt to establish the idea that literature not only challenges religious rhetoric in the public political domains, but also undermines the most basic structures of religion and of religious identity. I will suggest that they are able to argue this by politicizing all prescriptive aspects of religion, even those that detail personal religious ritual. They express their discontent with all prescriptive elements of religion by privileging one particular period of Islamic foundational history over another, making the bold suggestion that the verses revealed during the first foundational part of the religion may endure, whilst those revealed during the second part must be discarded, because they tend to be more legally prescriptive.1 The first foundational period of Islam took place in Mecca, whilst the second is associated with the city of Madina. I will look here at Meddeb’s Aya dans les villes, suggesting that it takes its inspiration from Quranic verses revealed in Mecca, and contrasting it with Djebar’s Loin de Médine. Djebar’s text is a literary rendition of the lives of women in and around Madina just after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and is thus a fictionalization of key narratives from Islamic history. Meddeb’s Aya offers a literary depiction of a series of travels around the world, aiming to create a sense of resonance between places and cultures in an attempt to undermine the claims to distinctiveness and break with the past at the cornerstone of Islamic identity. I will argue that, through her engagement with the time of Madina, Djebar’s text remains within the realm of political critique, suggesting that the legally foundational moment of Madina is richer and more plural than is ref lected by contemporary politicized Islamic discourse. Meddeb’s overlooking of Madina in Aya makes it more of an attack on the foundations of the religion. Both fictional narratives will be examined through the optic of Fethi Benslama’s theoretical text, La Psychanalyse à l’épreuve de l’islam. Benslama’s study proposes to extend the work done by Freud on Judaism and Christianity in Moses and Monotheism to Islam, and offers ref lections on the incompatibility of literature with sacred scripture, resonating strongly with the work of Meddeb. In the first instance, the discussion will focus on a study by Fischer and Abedi that elaborates the sense of aesthetic differentiation in the Quran between spiritual and legalistic verses. Fischer and Abedi broadly divide Quranic verses into the two categories of ‘muhkam’ (clear, fixed), and ‘mutashabih’ (unclear, allegorical). I will draw parallels between the essence of the Meccan period and ‘mutashabih’ verses (many of which were revealed in Mecca), which make the Meccan era one of spiritual ref lection and meditation, as well as between the Madinan period and ‘muhkam’ verses, which often contain social laws and injunctions. The implementation of these introduces social regimentation into the new Muslim community, hitherto undergoing a chief ly spiritual transformation, and the nexus of legal Quranic injunctions that brings this about becomes associated with Madina. The three sections that follow will focus on each of the texts under consideration here, starting with Benslama’s La Psychanalyse, and moving on respectively to Meddeb’s Aya and Djebar’s Loin. I will suggest that the texts of both Benslama and to a greater extent Meddeb demonstrate a strong preference for the ‘mutashabih’

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verses and their Meccan context, and that both also demonstrate an implicit attitude of disdain towards Madina and the legal aspects of monotheism that it represents. In the case of Djebar, I will explore the fact that whilst Loin focuses almost exclusively on Madina, it does not necessarily seek to endorse the ‘muhkam’ over the ‘mutashabih’, and I will offer ref lections on the different kinds of literary inspiration derived from the Meccan and Madinan periods by Meddeb and Djebar. ‘Muhkam’ versus ‘Mutashabih’ The twenty-three years in which Muhammad was a Prophet are divided into two historical eras, the first lasting thirteen years in Mecca, and the second lasting ten in Madina. Thus in addition to its importance as a holy site of pilgrimage (one of the five pillars of Islam is a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime for those who are wealthy enough to afford it), Mecca also represents a certain era in the historical development of the Islamic religion. It is the place of birth of the Prophet Muhammad and most of his very first followers, and the place in which the first Quranic verses were revealed. After thirteen years of preaching Islam in Mecca and facing constant persecution by its unconverted inhabitants, in 622 ce the Prophet and his companions made a new home for themselves in Madina, a desert oasis roughly 340 kilometres north-west of Mecca, where they were welcomed by the local population, who mostly adopted the new faith. Around two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Caliph Omar declared the year of the migration to Madina (the year of the hijra) as the first year of the lunar Muslim calendar. This calendar continues to be used by Muslims around the world (mostly alongside the Gregorian calendar) and is particularly useful in helping to mark out festival days. It is also widely understood that the style of Quranic verses revealed in Madina can generally be quite distinct from that of verses revealed in Mecca. Typically, the Meccan verses are succinct, and constitute calls for ref lection on the wider universe and its divine provenance. They juxtapose potent images of natural rhythms on earth, of the cosmos, and of an imminent afterlife. The following few verses are an example of the Meccan Quranic style from a chapter called ‘The Tidings’: Have we not made the earth as a wide expanse, | And the mountains as pegs? | And (have We not) created you in pairs | And made your sleep for rest, | And made the night as a covering, | and made the day as a means of subsistence? | And (have We not) built over you the seven firmaments, | And placed (therein) a Light of Splendour? | And do We not send down from the clouds water in abundance, | That We may produce therewith corn and vegetables, | And gardens of luxurious growth? | Verily the Day of Sorting Out is a thing appointed, | The day that the trumpet shall be sounded and ye shall come forth in crowds | and the heavens shall be opened as if there were doors.2

The Madinan verses, on the other hand, are longer and sometimes full of complex legislative instructions. They deal in great detail with topics like inheritance, business contracts and transactions, marriage and divorce, dress code, and the punishment for crimes like theft or adultery. This example is from the chapter called ‘Women’:


Divine Senses of Place They ask thee for a legal decision. Say: Allah directs (thus) about those who leave no descendants or ascendants as heirs. If it is a man that dies, leaving a sister but no child, she shall have half the inheritance: If (such a deceased was) a woman, who left no child, Her brother takes her inheritance: If there are two sisters, they shall have two-thirds of the inheritance (between them): If there are brothers and sisters, (they share), the male having twice the share of the female. Thus doth Allah make clear to you (His law), lest ye err. And Allah hath knowledge of all things.3

Thus the Meccan period was one of spiritual transformation, and the Quranic verses of that era, broadly speaking, differ both theologically and aesthetically from those of the later Madinan period. The latter time saw the founding of an Islamic system of social and political law, as well as the inscribing of Islam onto historic time, with the Meccan period remaining suspended outside of the Islamic calendar. Whilst Mecca is the fixed locus of the Islamic world and the chief site of geographical affirmation of a monotheistic God, Madina (although also an important site of pilgrimage) represents the notions of community, of the originary and the pure, and offers a transferable social example, with Muslims of all times and places aspiring one way or another to a social, economic, political, and military success aligned with the spiritual teachings of the Quran for which Madina is a precedent. In their study of the dialogic nature of the Quran, Fischer and Abedi4 note that the Quran was believed to be revealed twice to the Prophet Muhammad: ‘first complete, in the order of the present text; and a second time in fragments during the course of his twenty-three-year prophetic career’.5 The order of the verses in the fully compiled version does not match the order in which the verses were revealed, with Meccan and Madinan verses presented as intertwining strands within a textual whole. The effect of this is that the Quran is seen as both whole and fragmented, with each individual verse anchored in a distinct historic moment. Thus reciters of and listeners to the Quran going through it in its textual order ref lect simultaneously upon strong natural and cosmic images as well as on social and legal issues, in addition to the historic parables and stories of the Prophets also revealed as Quranic verses to the Prophet both in Mecca and in Madina. Fischer and Abedi highlight the fact that the study of the meanings of the Quran, however, can only be undertaken alongside a study of the historic context of its time of revelation. The importance attributed to historic contextualization of Quranic verses leads to the placing of a great emphasis on non-scriptural statements by and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad known as ‘hadith’. These come to the fore when narrated by close companions of the Prophet who happened to be present at a time when the Prophet said or did something that might for example elucidate the meanings of a Quranic verse. These sayings are at first transmitted orally from generation to generation, with chains of narration being vetted by later scholars whose job it is to check the authenticity of the narration by making sure that each individual transmitter of a hadith was of honest character and sound memory. Albert Hourani’s comments on the emergence of the science of hadith, and progressively of a variety of hadith related textual genres in the centuries following the death of the Prophet, suggest a strong connection between the development of historic narrative and an increasing sense of collective Muslim identity:

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Transmitted by responsible scholars, sometimes changed or even invented in the course of political and theological controversies, embroidered by story­ tellers, a mass of narratives was gradually formed, and out of this several kinds of literature emerged: collections of hadiths; biographies of the Prophet; collections of lives of transmitters of hadiths; and finally works of narrative history, recording the gesta Dei, God’s providence for His community — these contained an element of exemplary narrative, but a solid core of truth. The invention of the Islamic calendar, providing a chronology dating from the hijra, gave a framework within which events could be recorded.6

Thus, in addition to the Quranic text, a core of historic narrations and a chain of religious scholarship that forms a trail back to their original sources consolidate a sense of common historic provenance linked with the moment of the hijra, the migration from Mecca to Madina. Furthermore, based on a Quranic verse about the different types of Quranic language and on the ways in which these should be approached, Fischer and Abedi divide Quranic verses into the two broad categories of ‘muhkam’ (verses with ‘plain meaning’)7 and ‘mutashabih’ (verses with ‘allegorical meaning’).8 The terms are derived from the following Quranic verse: He it is who sent down to thee the Book, wherein are verses/signs [ayāt] of plain, firm, basic or established meaning [muhkamat] that are the essence/foundation of the Book; and others that are ambiguous or allegorical [mutashābihāt]. Those whose hearts are perverse [zaygh, ‘inclining towards falsity’] and desiring its interpretation or hidden meaning [ibtighā al-fitna], and desiring its interpretation or hidden meaning [ibtighā tawīlihī], but no one knows its hidden meaning or interpretation EXCEPT GOD. And those firmly grounded in knowledge [...] say, ‘we believe in it; all is from our Lord’; and none grasps the message except men of understanding.9

Fischer and Abedi highlight an etymological link between the term ‘muhkam’ and those of ‘hukm (judgement, verdict) and hikmat (wisdom); its root (h-k-m) con­ notes “restraint”. “Muhkam” seems to be a verse with limited and unquestioned meaning’.10 Amongst the typical characteristics of a ‘muhkam’ verse is that it con­tains ‘regulations, prescriptions, rules’,11 that it is ‘apparent, clear, (has) plain inter­pre­tation, one meaning’,12 and that it is ‘independent to itself: (offers a) direct under­standing, (and is) rationally comprehensible’.13 ‘Mutashabih’, on the other hand, ‘is a cognate of shibh (likeness) and shubhah (‘obscurity’, ‘vagueness’, ‘uncer­tainty’, ‘doubt’, ‘specious argument’, ‘sophism’, and ‘judicial error’), and of ishtibah (“to mistake one thing for another due to an apparent similarity”)’.14 Listed amongst the typical characteristics of a verse that is ‘mutashabih’ are that it may contain references to ‘meditation, insight’, that it may be ‘figurative’ or ‘allegorical’, or that it may refer to the ‘unknowable: things no one can know (e.g., the time of resurrection)’ or ‘things knowable to scholars’. The language of such verses is ‘sublime’ in contrast to the ‘human’15 language of the ‘muhkam’ verses. The description of the two categories corresponds loosely with the typical Meccan and Madinan styles of Quranic verse, with the unambiguous pragmatic legal injunctions of Madina (as in the example cited above) fitting into the plainer ‘muhkam’ category, whilst the more mystical verses of Mecca feature many of the


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characteristics of the ‘mutashabih’ category. These two kinds of verse differ both aesthetically and in terms of the impact they are designed to have on the individual/ community. The typically legislative Madinan verses shape community values and advocate a spirituality that manifests itself in adhering to a certain moral and legal code, whilst the Meccan verses privilege a more loosely defined and introspective mystical spiritual experience. As indicated in the verse used by Fischer and Abedi and cited above, the Quran is to be accepted as a whole: ‘and those firmly grounded in knowledge [...] say, “we believe in it; all is from our Lord” ’ (my emphasis). Historically, however, there have been debates within the Islamic spiritual Sufi tradition that have raised questions concerning the relationship of spirituality (particularly esoteric spiritual experience) to Quranic law. Albert Hourani divides Sufi poets, philosophers, and mystics into two broad categories: those for whom mystical experiences do not mean absolution from the literal word and law of God (for example praying five times a day, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca), and those for whom exceptional closeness to God through a strong spiritual bond of love means that they do not need to obey his literal word. Hourani names the eleventh-century philosopher Al-Ghazali as an example of a mystic who believed that the practice of philosophy and mysticism should be done within the orthodox confines of the accepted meanings of the Quran and should not cause deviation from Quranic law. The poet and mystic Al-Hallâj, on the other hand, follows a spiritual logic which leads him to declare for example that a physical journey to Mecca is not necessary where it is possible to make an inner spiritual journey straight to God. The following two sections will look at the drive (similar to that of the extreme Sufi positions) within Benslama’s La Psychanalyse and more explicitly within Meddeb’s Aya to allegorize all aspects of Quranic discourse, leaving no part of it open to a literal understanding. Where a verse cannot be allegorized, it is to be overlooked. This strips Quranic discourse of its prescriptive dimensions, in terms of both creed and law. Opposing the broad traditional view that all the verses of the Quran, whether ‘muhkam’ or ‘mutashabih’, work together as an integral whole (rendering no verse exclusively prescriptive and dogmatic or nebulously spiritual), the texts of both Benslama and Meddeb highlight an antagonism between the two, and suggest that an emphasis on the ‘muhkam’ undermines the ‘mutashabih’, whilst an emphasis on the ‘mutashabih’ necessarily eclipses the ‘muhkam’. Translated into social terms, a society that gives too much value to monotheistic law stagnates linguistically, culturally, and politically, whilst one that frees itself from monotheistic law f lourishes in these domains. Between them, Meddeb’s and Benslama’s texts thus call for and perform a repression of the ‘muhkam’, and in doing so undermine the role of Madina (with all its legal and political implications) in the foundation of Muslim identity. Whereas Benslama argues that the onus is on fiction to open up tightly spun foundational narratives, and to undermine literalistic approaches to sacred scripture, Meddeb performs this act of opening in his literary text. Both texts put forward implicitly the notion that literary production, because of its nonsystematic approach to sacred scripture, which makes it contain only fragments or echoes of that scripture, necessarily undermines the integrity of sacred scripture,

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causing it to present itself in unorthodox ways. The third section of the chapter will focus on Djebar’s Loin de Médine, exploring the fact that, whilst the text engages in similar notions of poetic language versus monotheistic law, there is a much greater identification with Madina as an originary moment, which does not involve a privileging of the ‘muhkam’ over the ‘mutashabih’, but a plea for recognition of social plurality that might nuance contemporary interpretations of the ‘muhkam’. My analysis will take into account the fact that all three texts demonstrate an often unavoidable sense of identification with and responsibility towards Islamic literary and political heritage. This sense of responsibility is divorced from any commit­ment to the divine as defined by monotheistic discourse traditionally believed to be at the root of Islam. Instead, it is directed towards certain originary script­ural and historic narratives. Furthermore, whether openly or implicitly, all three texts take up a position against that of Islamist discourse. As I will discuss in the section on Benslama below, the term Islamist is often ill-defined, broadly designating politicized Islamic movements that call for the establishment of sharia (Quranic) law on a national level and are believed to impose limits on intellectual and moral freedoms within Muslim communities. The exploration and representation of traditional Islamic narratives in La Psychanalyse, Aya, and Loin are unfettered by the traditional modes of contextualization, impersonal representation, and referencing. George Lang16 suggests that this tendency to cast off the traditional approach to such narratives is akin to an Islamist practice of disregarding traditional interpretative apparatus in order to achieve very literal readings of the Quran. Whereas however, the Islamist tendency is to literalize and favour the ‘muhkam’ aspects of Quranic teaching, the tendency of the texts featured here, particularly Meddeb’s Aya, is to allegorize, and to favour the ‘mutashabih’. This allegorization is presented, moreover, as a consequence of fictionalization, of subjecting sacred scripture and narrative to a literary process that dislodges them from their traditional educational settings. In this way, the role of the literary in tipping the balance from the ‘muhkam’ to the ‘mutashabih’ returns us to the notion that has been explored and challenged throughout this book that the literary serves to undermine the fixed modes of assessing sacred scripture by offering new and unexpected angles for its contemplation. A Muted Madina: Benslama’s Repression of the Narratives of Madina in La Psychanalyse à l’épreuve de l’islam Benslama begins his analysis of the originary narratives of Islam in La Psychanalyse by making clear his personal feelings towards his religious heritage. From the outset he claims: ‘il n’était pas dans mon programme ni dans celui de toute ma génération de nous intéresser à l’islam. C’est parce que l’islam a commencé de s’occuper de nous que j’ai décidé de m’occuper de lui’ [Islam has never been a concern for me or my generation. It was because Islam had taken an interest in us that I began to take an interest in it].17 Religion for his generation, Benslama professes, was responsible ‘d’avoir entraîné notre monde dans la nuit du monde pendant des siècles, d’où nous fûmes réveillés par le fracas des années européennes d’occupation’ [for having


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dragged our world into darkness for centuries on end, a torpor from which we were awakened by the hubbub of the European armies].18 Finding himself in a ‘situation historique critique’ [a critical historical period]19 marked by a ‘déferlement fanatique’ [growth of fanaticism]20 as well as by a momentous governmental move towards laïcité in post-colonial 21 Tunisia, carried out in the name of Islam, Benslama decides to engage in ‘une pensée de l’écart entre un islam fini et un islam infini’ [a “finite Islam” and an “infinite Islam”].22 The ‘déferlement fanatique’ to which Benslama refers alludes to increasingly prominent activity by fanatic religious groups, designated collectively throughout the text as the ‘islamistes’. Amongst these he cites various disparate examples such as the Algerian Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the perpetrators of the attacks on New York on 11 September 2001, linked with the Afghanistan-based Al-Qaeda movement. Benslama uses the term ‘islamiste’ to signify in general a person experiencing the modern day phenomenon of post-colonial discontinuity with the Islamic past, and who wishes to see a totalitarian resurgence of Islam (such that it governs social and political law), and is even on occasion prepared to go to extreme and violent lengths to try to bring this about. It becomes clear throughout his text that this definition is problematic, and extends at times to any observer of the Muslim faith, whether or not he or she is using violence or is even politically minded. Benslama speaks of the fact that up until modern times, the term ‘islamiste’ in French had been to Islam what Christian had been to Christianity. It had merely signified an adherent of the religion of Islam. Using the same word for a group deemed politically subversive in modern times creates an unwelcome sense of confusion, for Benslama, between being an adherent to the faith and being a politically subversive adherent to it. After this disclosure, the term begins to appear in La Psychanalyse with a line drawn through it, palimpsestically alluding to its shift in meaning. The effect of this is that the reader is unsure of which meaning is being designated at different points in Benslama’s text, and confusion between the traditional and acceptable, and the modern and subversive is upheld, suggesting that there is no real distinction between the two. So although Benslama applies the term to Muslims who wish to Islamize public space through the national implementation of sacred Islamic law, he makes no sustainable distinction between the politically subversive and the orthodox within a Muslim community. This confusion is exacerbated by Benslama’s argument that traditional Islam was irretrievably undone during colonial times, suggesting that it can no longer exist today, as well as his main contention that fiction naturally delegitimizes sacred scripture. The proliferation of fiction means that religion is already unseated in other communities, and the fact that this process is not as advanced amongst Muslims is the result of an anthropological stagnation that keeps fiction out. All Muslims are thus consciously guarding an identity and a way of life, making this function beyond its historical and intellectual lifespan. The implication here is that only falsely reconstructed orthodoxy continues to exist, and that any aspect of contemporary Islam may thus be termed Islamist, since it could potentially form part of a consciously adopted political identity rather than a time-honoured traditional religious one. Nonetheless, Benslama attempts to use the term to designate certain extreme political views, which will be discussed throughout this section.

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Whilst Benslama attempts to uphold a sense of distinction between orthodoxy and radical political ideology, albeit not always successfully, such a distinction is problematized by Hugh Roberts, who argues that Islamic political activity to which the term ‘Islamism’ refers is ‘wholly orthodox’.23 Focusing on the example of Algeria, Roberts bases his assertion on the fact that traditionally a Muslim ruler ‘is legitimate in so far as he ensures the application of the Shari’a and thereby preserves the moral order upon which the integrity of the community of believers depends’.24 If a ruler deviates from this, every Muslim adult must follow the Prophetic teaching that enjoins Muslims to ‘ “command that which is proper and forbid that which is reprehensible” ’.25 This gives the community ‘the legitimacy, indeed the imperative to revolt’,26 endowing it with a political volatility that is anchored in religious orthodoxy. Roberts’s argument is, of course, problematic, at best representing a logic constructed to endorse one strand of Islamically inspired political thinking. Orthodox Islam offers much less exacting definitions of what constitutes legitimate governance, preferring where possible that worshippers concentrate on their daily tasks of worship and are not distracted by political discussion and activity. Mohammad Akram, for example, makes the case that there is no cause for rebellion against any ruler who generally maintains peace and order in society and does not impede the daily personal rituals of worship such as prayer/fasting, no matter what the ruler’s religion, moral standing or even political outlook.27 Yet Roberts’s discussion of Islamism and its orthodox provenance enforces the idea that drawing a distinction between the orthodox and the radical is not easy, and that there is much room for slippage, as becomes apparent in Benslama’s work. I will focus here on Benslama’s analysis of the ‘Islamist’ view of historic time. Although Madina is not named in the text, there is an implicit sense in which it constitutes a historic moment that is thought pure and distinct, and against which Islamist modernity measures itself in terms of social and political norms. This fixation on an originary moment is necessarily bound, for Benslama, with a re­pression of literary space and feminine sexuality. When read in light of Ben­ slama’s ideas on an enclosed historic moment of provenance that is threatened by literature, it becomes clear that both Meddeb’s and Djebar’s texts seek to open up the tightly woven foundational narratives of Islam. Both texts consciously adopt means of challenging the anti-dialogic Islamist approach to history and to identity, highlighting a sense of human variety in early Muslim times, as well as ways in which Islamic culture bears traces of peoples and places from beyond its sphere. The theoretical work of Meddeb and Benslama insists on the fact that the process of opening up is due to fictionalization, and results in a major destabilizing of the foundations of Islam as a monotheistic religion. Djebar’s Loin, although it gestures subtly to conf lict between Islam in its foundational moments and poetic discourse, generally seems to restrict itself to a critique of a reductive hijacking of Madina, as opposed to the moment of Madina itself.


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Benslama: The Islamists and Madina Benslama proposes La Psychanalyse as an extension of the work done by Freud on Judaism and Christianity in Moses and Monotheism. Freud’s text famously puts forward his theory that Moses was an Egyptian follower of the Egyptian King Akhenaton’s monotheistic religion, and not an Israelite. In his text, Freud clearly works with an understanding of monotheism as an exclusivist form of religion that makes no space for otherness or difference. His argument challenges the notion of unity or oneness on multiple fronts. He identifies palimpsestic inconsistencies in the Old Testament that undermine the idea that it should be attributed to a single era or authorial source. He even proposes the idea that there were two figures called Moses who led the Hebrew people at different times in order to account for chronological disparities that arise as a result of his hypothesis that (the first) Moses was an Egyptian. Such assertions break down the idea of a single conceptual moment followed by the actions of a single unifying figure from within the community marking the birth of the Jewish religion. Instead, Freud presents Judaism as the displaced continuation of an antecedent monotheistic tradition, and Judaic law as having emerged as a result of a disjointed combination of the teachings of multiple figures. Benslama calls this an ‘infinition de l’origine’ [an infinite origin that is the incompleteness of origin],28 which opposes the idea that a conceptual moment of ‘autofondation’ is ‘propre’ [proper], occurring from within a community, or that it is an isolated moment of ‘clôture’ [closure]29 and dictates instead that the formation of an identity always involves the appropriation of external elements. Looking at originary narratives from the Quran and from the Meccan period of Islamic history, Benslama echoes Freud’s ideas on the ‘infinition’ of origins, suggesting that the ‘clôture’ or closing off of a foundational moment is achieved by means of singling out one particular point in history to the exclusion of others in an act of ‘répudiation’ [repudiation].30 The fact that this term evokes the Islamic divorce law (according to which a man may repudiate his wife on the spot with a verbal utterance, as depicted in Rachid Boudjedra’s La Répudiation) is no coincidence. Benslama makes the case that women constitute an anti-originary force and are thus often eclipsed in foundational narratives. This is illustrated through the biblical and Quranic story of Abraham and his two wives Sarah and Agar. Each of these wives bears a son for Abraham, and each son goes on to become a founding father of a tribe connected to a particular monotheistic tradition. Isaac, son of Sarah, is considered the founding father of the tribes of Israel, whilst Ishmael, son of Agar, is designated the ‘father of the Arabs’ in the Muslim tradition. Sarah and Agar become an anti-originary force in the way that they cause a splitting of Abraham’s lineage, thereby posing a challenge to the enclosure of an originary moment. Moreover, the fact that Abraham has two heirs, each of whom goes on to become the father of a particular religious heritage, upholds the Freudian notion of originary narrative as one possibility amongst many that is merely elevated above others of equal status, causing the others to be suppressed. Benslama maintains that: C’est la croyance en cette fiction qui fait le fondateur, en tant que corps de sainteté ou de vérité. La sainteté n’est pas dans la chair de l’enfant, elle est dans

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cette fiction qui la lui confère. En ce sens, la fiction est la mère de la sainteté du saint-enfant, et c’est ce que toute fiction veut atteindre et recréer: y compris dans sa forme que nous appelons aujourd’hui littérature. [It is belief in this fiction [originary narrative] that makes the founder, as body of sanctity or truth. This sanctity resides not in the f lesh of the child but in the fiction that confers it upon him. In this sense, fiction is the mother of the sanctity of the holy child, which is what all fiction tries to achieve and recreate, including in the form we now call literature.]31

Sanctity, then, is not innate, but is created by a sanctifying narrative. This sanctifying narrative is a fiction that privileges one story over another almost arbitrarily. In this way, it is a fiction that struggles to maintain its supremacy over other fictions. It is privileged because it arrives first: ‘l’origine est quelque chose par une fiction qui l’a établie là où il n’y avait rien, à l’exclusion d’autres fictions’ [origin is [created] by a fiction that established it where there previously was nothing, to the exclusion of other fictions].32 And so only ‘une fiction peut mettre en péril une fiction de l’origine’ [a fiction can put an originary fiction in peril].33 The problem with Benslama’s analysis, however, is that it seems to draw on a biblical attitude towards the split lineage of Abraham in order to illustrate his critique of Islamic narrative. Benslama does not acknowledge that in the Quran, Isaac and his descendants Jacob and Joseph are also celebrated as prophets of God. Moreover, and I will return to this, the Quran openly draws on antecedent monotheisms and does not seek to close itself off from these, thus placing itself as the final link in a long chain of revelations, privileged in that it conclusively builds on these. For Benslama, the strong yearning for a perfect originary historic moment in Muslim communities around the world is precipitated by factors like colonialism and mass urbanization, which cause a break with literary and scholarly Islamic tradition. Changes made to local education systems by colonial presences lead to a discontinuation of time-honoured methods of thinking and learning, and even of the languages needed to access historic sources directly. Benslama calls this break with tradition a ‘décomposition’ [decomposition]34 of Islamic heritage, which is followed by a ‘récomposition’ [recomposition],35 but one which does not reconnect a disinherited community with its heritage. Disenchantment with the present is fuelled by a sense of political impotence, and by having witnessed developments in science and technology in which these communities have had no participation. One consequence of this feeling of marginalization is a retreat into a temporal haven. Benslama suggests that this temporal retreat takes the form of an obsessive fixation with an early time in Islam, implicitly the time of Madina. His argument recognizes the centrality of the notion of a ‘retour’ [return]36 to a point of origin as inherently ‘le cœur de l’herméneutique islamique pour laquelle l’origine n’est retrouvée que pour autant qu’elle est perdue et voilée dans l’acte même de sa représentation’ [the heart of Islamic hermeneutics, for which origin is attained only to the extent that it has been lost and veiled in the very act of its representation].37 Traditionally, Islam recognizes and privileges a certain moment of origin, whilst also maintaining an awareness of its unattainability. Benslama cites the traditional religious disciplines of ‘tafsir’ (Quranic exegesis) and ‘ta’wîl’ (interpretation — meaning literally ‘le


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retour à ce qui est premier’ [‘the return to what is first’])38 as evidence of constant attempts to connect with and to build on both apparent and hidden meanings of Quranic text. The contemporary Islamist approach to sacred history diverges from the traditional one in that it does not harbour the same sense of distance: Dès que j’ai commencé à prêter attention au discours des courants islamistes, je m’aperçus que la question des origines était leur hantise et leur passion, et qu’ils parvenaient progressivement à coller les masses à elle, à travers une promesse qui n’ouvrait pas d’horizon d’attente mais portait à une regression vers l’initial où le temps ne serait qu’une répétition à l’identique de ce qui a déjà eu lieu à l’époque de la fondation islamique [...] on les vit adopter ce qu’ils supposaient être les paroles, les gestes, les attitudes des gens de l’‘aube de l’islam’. L’actualité était sans cesse rapprochée des événements premiers et perçue tel un palimpseste de l’antérieur, qui, en remontant à la surface du temps vécu, engloutissait le présent. [As soon as I began to pay attention to the language of Islamist speech, I realized it was haunted by the question of origins. Its proponents gradually succeeded in attracting the masses through a promise that did not hold any expectations for the future but, rather, incorporated a regression to some distant past, when time was an identical repetition of what has already taken place during Islam’s foundation [...] They adopted what they assumed were the words, gestures and attitudes of those who lived ‘at the dawn of Islam.’ The present was constantly compared to a distant past, and perceived as a palimpsest of the past which, in f loating back to the surface of lived time, submerged the present.]39

The fact that this desire to escape to the ‘aube de l’islam’ at a time when Muslim communities feel impotent in the face of imperialist incursions into their politics and culture suggests a desire to return to a concrete symbol of Muslim indepen­ dence, freedom, and military and political success. Madina best fits the description of historic success. This yearning is so strong that ‘pour certains, il était même injuste de qu’ils soient nés à cet époque’ [some even felt it was unfair that they had been born into the modern world],40 and their militancy comes from the fact that ‘vouloir à ce point rejoindre l’origine n’allait pas sans une volonté de vengeance effrayante des temps présents’ [the urge to return to one’s past is accompanied by a terrifying wish for vengeance in the present].41 Benslama calls this obsession with origin an: incestuel politique: la croyance en la présence intégrale et compacte de l’origine soudée à la communautée assouvie. C’est pourquoi, dans le cas de l’idéologie islamiste, il n’y a pas simplement retour à, expression où peut se réserver la métaphore et la visée interprétative en signifiant l’éloignement de la source, mais le recours délirant à l’origine, recours qui n’est possible que dans la mesure où il y a anéantissement de l’interprétation. [a ‘political incest’: the belief in the integral and compact presence of origin bound to the satisfied community. That is why, in the case of Islamist ideology, there is not simply a return to something — an expression in which the notion of separation from a source indicates the presence of metaphor and interpretation — but a delusional appeal to origin, an appeal that is possible only to the extent that interpretation is destroyed.]42

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An ‘incestuel politique’ here contrasts starkly with the exogamous act (and some­ times multiple exogamous acts) that characterizes a foundational moment, evoking a strong sense of controlled enclosure. Moreover, in addition to the Islamist condemnation of literary language for the sake of keeping the source of Islamic identity pure, Benslama addresses the subject of certain Quranic verses that suggest an antipathy towards literary language, fuelling the Islamist disdain for it. He cites the fact that the Quran, on various occasions, seeks to distinguish itself from the language of seventh-century poets at the time of revelation, and strongly denounces accusations that the Prophet is himself a poet. This sets up a dichotomy of ‘divin-vrai/poétique-mensonger’ [divine-true and poeticfalse],43 according to which ‘le fictif est appréhendé comme ce qui n’est pas vrai, comme ce qui n’est pas réel, donc n’a pas d’être, ou n’est pas’ [the fictive was seen as something that was not true, not real, and that, therefore, had no being or did not exist].44 Furthermore, even if literature were to narrate true events, these would be compromised by ‘le passage nécessaire dans un texte, dans un travail d’écriture et d’auteur’ [the necessary transition of that event to a text, a work of writing and authorship].45 An obsession with pure, unadulterated origin means that the distrust of literary language is amplified. For Benslama, this distrust is exemplified in the response to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, part of which is set during the originary time of the revelation of Quranic verses. Benslama undertakes a full analysis of the response to Rushdie’s novel in his essay Une Fiction troublante, and revisits it in La Psychanalyse. He notes that most offensive for Muslims is a narrative featured within the novel in which the Prophet transmits a divine revelation that praises certain preIslamic goddesses, only then to retract the verses and denounce them as fabrications transmitted to him by Satan in order to water down the strength of his monotheistic message. The mere idea of the Prophet reaching a point of confusion that allows him to transmit false verses to his companions opens this up as a possibility that mars the rest of the Quran, raising the question of whether any other false verses continue to feature in it undetected. Moreover, privileging one’s imagination in the representation of the originary time of Islam over the more authoritative source of revelation destabilizes the notion of God himself, making every man an ‘ “auteur” ’, and suggesting that ‘quiconque peut s’emparer de ce qui fut la prérogative divine: écrire le sens du monde, en procédant de soi-même comme ressource’ [anyone can grab hold of what was once a divine prerogative: writing the meaning of the world, beginning with oneself as a resource].46 Benslama thus asserts that both generally and especially for Islamists, revelation and literature are incompatible (a notion that is commonly taken up by North African authors from Muslim backgrounds, who often ref lect on their own literary roles against those of the discredited ‘poets’ of the Quran, as will be discussed in my final conclusion). Benslama himself maintains the incompatibility between religious identity and fiction where he makes the case in Une Fiction troublante that the novel in particular is inherently subversive and irreverent, having taken part in the ‘impitoyable extermination des opacités originaires’ [ruthless extermination of originary opacities]47 in Europe. Literature marks a fundamental change in the religious state of a society: ‘avec la littérature nous passons d’une humanité faite par le texte à


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une humanité qui fait le texte’ [with literature we change from a humanity that is formed by text to a humanity that produces text].48 Writing detracts from the main role of the worshipper as a reader. Benslama points out that the Quran’s first command is ‘ “lis” ’ ‘ “read” ’,49 and so the Muslim is ‘avant tout, un lecteur’ [first and foremost a reader].50 Where literature appears, it heralds the start of a posttheological age: ‘la littérature commence avec la sortie du Livre et que sa condition soit la condition d’une exil du Texte’ [literature begins with an exit from The Book and its status is that of an exile from The Text].51 Rushdie’s fictional undoing of the foundational narrative of Islam is thus ‘dévastateur, violent’ [devastating, violent].52 Whilst ‘au regard du lecteur européen moderne venu dans la descendance de la “mort de Dieu”, cette violence reste pour une grand part imperceptible’ [to the eye of the modern European reader, shaped by the concept of the ‘death of God’, this violence remains largely imperceptible],53 for a Muslim whose tradition ‘opère dans le vif ’ [is alive and at work]54 Rushdie, in Freudian terms, is the ‘ordonnateur d’un repas totémique textuel’ [instigator of a totemic textual meal].55 What is consumed here is not the body of the father, as in Freud’s example, but the ‘texte mythique de ce corps’ [mythical text of this body].56 This leads to a ‘communauté sans mythe’ [a community without myth].57 For Benslama, ‘Le roman semble procéder d’un principe de fragmentation émanant d’une sorte de scène originaire de la modernité’ [the novel seems to issue from a principle of fragmentation that emanates from a kind of originary scene of modernity]. This makes every fictional narrative ‘comme le témoignage renouvelé de cette perte’ [like the renewed witnessing of that loss]58 of the founding myth. Thus a variety of literary expression leads to a fragmentation of origin. Benslama ends by wondering whether it is possible to embrace the idea of an ‘origine en partage’ [shared origin]59 that is not entirely destructive and nihilistic. Meddeb’s Aya and Djebar’s Loin consider the same question, and actively explore the possibility of a more open and multiple foundational moment in their texts. Evading Time and Place in Abdelwahab Meddeb’s Aya dans les villes Whereas Benslama claims to have been brought to Islam as subject matter against his own inclination, Meddeb’s narrator in Aya is emphatic in his enthusiasm for Islamic heritage, claiming: ‘Jean s’étonne à l’amour que je conserve pour l’islam malgré mon incroyance’ [ Jean is astounded by the love I have for Islam in spite of my unbelief ].60 Meddeb’s texts also heavily foreground an admiration for and an aesthetic connection with the work of medieval mystical poets like Ibn Arabi and Al Hallâj. Meddeb is drawn to such figures because of the ways in which personal idiom and experience are mingled with their poetic expressions of devotion, allowing for a varied devotional discourse. Indeed, Meddeb’s work consistently favours variety and plurality, and undermines notions of the single, the monotheistic, and the monolithic: a single deity, a unified Quranic text, a single spiritual site, a single meaning behind any cultural or spiritual ritual or tradition. In La Maladie de l’islam, Meddeb argues that in order to foster tolerance within a community, it is necessary that ‘les brèches se multiplient; que l’unanisme cesse; que la substance stable de l’Un s’éparpille en une gerbe d’insaisissables atomes’

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[the deviations multiply and unanism cease; that the stable substance of the One disseminate itself in a shower of ungraspable atoms].61 His statement expresses a clear desire for the undermining of a strictly monotheistic basis of thought in society. Yet Meddeb’s work also stylistically posits itself as part of the literary succession to the medieval Sufi tradition, and aspects of this, in turn, bear certain aesthetic features seemingly inspired by the style of ‘mutashabih’ Quranic verses. Furthermore, the historic debate highlighted by Hourani and discussed above on whether saints and mystics were bound by the literal word of God despite their deep insights into its inner meanings did not greatly affect the actions of the general populace when it came to following the rules of life laid down by the Quran. Meddeb’s wider corpus of works, on the other hand, and in particular his essays and interviews, calls for a less exclusive recognition of the need to disregard certain legal aspects of the Quran. In both La Maladie de l’islam and Face à l’islam, for example, Meddeb repeatedly expresses a distaste for the veiling of women. Whereas, in Face à l’islam, he asks ‘n’est-il pas temps de distinguer entre la part “éternelle” et la part périssable du message coranique?’ [is it not time to distinguish between the ‘eternal’ and the ‘perishable’ parts of the Koranic message?],62 and laments the fact that, as with other religions, it is ‘la partie la plus médiocre qui semble durer en islam’ [it is the most mediocre part of Islam that seems to endure],63 the implication is that the ‘muhkam’ aspects of the Quran (those that offer fixed legal injunctions or foster a literal belief in a literal single God) are what he considers perishable and mediocre. This clearly resonates with similar sentiments on finite and infinite aspects of Islam expressed by Benslama. The following statement from La Maladie gives some insight into Meddeb’s approach to religion: Depuis longtemps, je fais de la séparation des instances un art de vivre, pour n’être pas victime de la réduction qu’impose la logique de la raison. En politique, j’use de prudence, de modération, de bon sens, je me déclare réaliste et terrestre et me soumets aux enseignements d’Aristote, Voltaire, Kant. Bref, dans ce champ, je me projette apollonien. Alors qu’en poésie, en art, dans l’aventure de l’expérience intérieure, je me transforme en homme de l’excès, de la démesure, je deviens céleste, je cingle dans le sillage de Platon, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille. Et je me découvre dionysiaque. Dans cette logique paradoxale, l’amour des Lumières ne me conduit pas à occulter la face enténébrée de l’homme. [For a long time now, I have made the separation of domains into the art of living, so as not to be the victim of the reduction that the logic of reason imposes. In relation to politics, I use prudence, moderation, common sense; I declare myself a down-to-earth realist and submit to the teachings of Aristotle, Voltaire and Kant. In short, I see myself as Apollonian in that area. But in poetry, in art, in the adventure of inner experience, I become a man of excess, of unboundedness. I become celestial; I navigate in the wake of Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille. And I discover myself as Dionysian. In this paradoxical logic, love of the Enlightenment does not make me occult the darker face of man.]64

In addition to the canonical Western thinkers listed as aids in the exploration of his hidden spiritual depths, Meddeb’s strong admiration for a Sufi literary tradition,


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rich in allegory and aesthetically inspired by the more allegorical and less literal ‘mutashabih’ verses in the Quran, suggests that, for Meddeb, the eternal aspects of the Quran are aesthetic, whilst all that is pragmatic and regulates the daily rhythm of life or the mechanisms of rational thinking is to be considered perishable. Meddeb’s predilection for multiplicity thus has both spiritual and political implications. Whilst aspects of Islamic discourse can be used as a tool for creative spiritual meditation and expression, Islamic discourse is not to be taken as a fixed set of beliefs or a social system. Aya dans les villes [Aya in Cities] is amongst the most illustrative of Meddeb’s fict­ional prose texts when it comes to the author’s complicated relationship with Islamic heritage. Published in 1999, Aya offers a series of fictional(ized) travel narratives in the first person. The narrator seems in places to share Meddeb’s name, and often travels in the company of an elderly European man, Jean, as well as in the more elusive feminine company of ‘Aya’, whose status hovers ambiguously between that of true f lesh-and-blood companion and mystical muse, and whose name means both sign and Quranic verse, thereby suggesting some form of Quranic inspiration behind the text. The only words spoken directly by Aya in the text are imagined by the narrator whilst he is away from her in Mecca. She is otherwise only mentioned in the third person, alluding to a certain aloofness and even an inability to communicate for herself without the mediation of the narrator. In Quranic terms, this calls to mind Fischer and Abedi’s characterization of ‘mutashabih’ as something that yields meaning only through mediation. Thus the text posits ‘mutashabih’ Quranic verses as its literary muse. The text is more a collection of brief literary musings on a succession of cities and sites than a full diary-style account of a journey, and embodies the nexus of religious juxtapositions and contradictions typical of Meddeb’s fiction. It opens with an elegiac description of Petra, a city which predates Islam and where the Nabateans once worshipped a triad of stone idols, but which is now an uninhabited tourist site in Jordan. The narrator then moves on to other cities in the Islamic world and in Europe, mentioning sites of interest and ref lecting on resonances between their languages and traditions. The narrator describes a trip to Mecca roughly half way through the text. This central position of a seemingly conventional pilgrimage suggests an imitation of the structure of the journeys of famous medieval explorers from the Muslim world, amongst whom are the likes of the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta. Yet the reverential attitude towards various polytheistic traditions throughout the text contests its role as an affirmation of monotheistic discourse. Madina is not amongst the sites featured in Aya, suggesting on the one hand that it is overlooked as a site of any geographic, historic, or even spiritual interest or importance. The fact that Madina is the Arabic word for ‘ville’, however, suggests an oblique reference to it in Aya. Moreover, Ronnie Scharfman notes Meddeb’s coinage of the verb ‘médiner’ [to madinate] in Talismano, signifying a physical walk through an (urban) setting that is also an inner journey, echoing the verb ‘méditer’ [to meditate].65 In addition to these connotations of the term, it also echoes the name Madina, closely associated with Muslim foundational narrative. ‘Madinations’ can therefore also be seen as walks that open up the moment of

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Madina, that make it multiple and recurring. Instead of Madina, one single town, we are presented in the text with a diverse range of towns and cities where it is possible to ref lect on spiritual matters, suggesting a desire to generate a multiple and varied focus that contrasts with an insistence on privileging a single sight as the main source of law and thought throughout Islamic history. Thus, as a place, Madina features in Aya as a silenced or eclipsed city. Whilst it is undermined as a physical site of interest, it is represented as a continual process of displacement in the interest of spiritual fulfilment. It is embodied in some form in the narrator’s travels, suggesting an allegorization of Madina. Using the techniques and imagery of mystic poetry, Meddeb’s Aya thus undermines Madina as the sole and uppermost example of the implementation of a monotheistic legal system ordained by a monotheistic deity. By occulting Madina, the text also unhinges the origins of Muslim public time, causing the beginning of Islam to fade into preceding eras of polytheism, and to lose its historic sense of distinctiveness. The text’s insistence on spiritual, linguistic, folkloric, and architectural resonances in cities around the world undermines the notion of the ‘propre’ within a heritage, suggesting that no heritage can lay unique claim to any particular spiritual or artistic idea. To belong to Islam is thus not to belong to it/to dispossess it. The text is steeped in open and subtextual Quranic references, yet it defies the notion that the revelation of the Quran heralds an originary moment. Traditionally, the emergence of Islam in seventh-century Arabia is defined against the backdrop of the pre-Islamic time of ‘Jahiliyyah’ or ignorance. Jahiliyyah society is deemed to stand for laws and values in opposition to those presented in the Quran. The following example contrasts the behaviour of women in the Jahiliyyah period (translated in the verse as ‘Times of Ignorance’) to that of women in Islam: ‘And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former Times of Ignorance’.66 The most fundamental difference between the two eras is that the Jahiliyyah was an era of polytheism, whilst Islam calls to a return to absolute monotheism (believed to have been practised in Arabia by Abraham and Ishmael in former times). Tensions between monotheism and the preceding polytheism of Arabia emerge most palpably in the opening section of the text, where the narrator describes a visit to the ancient polytheistic Nabatean city of Petra. The narrator begins by remarking a white f lag, f luttering on the summit of a distant mountain: ‘bannière, là-bas, au sommet de la plus haute montagne’ [banner, over there, at the summit of the highest mountain]67 at the ‘limite où s’épuise le don qu’offre la nature’ [limit where nature’s offering stops].68 This he describes as a ‘unique tâche blanche qui clôture l’ensemble’ [a single white stain that encloses the whole],69 and a ‘crête ajoutée par la main de l’homme, qui, cette fois, ne s’est pas contenté d’entrer en émulation avec la disposition de la roche, invitant à la taille, à la sculpture’ [crest added by the hand of man who, this time, has not contented himself with following the rock’s inclinations, inspiring height and sculpture].70 Furthermore, it is a ‘bannière qui surplombe le reste, f lottant comme une signature qui détourne le paysage de son contenu’ [banner that weighs heavily on its surroundings, f luttering like a sign that turns the landscape away from itself ].71 The white f lag is juxtaposed with the ‘couleurs fauves’ [bold colours] of


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the surrounding rock, ‘ébauches naturelles de formes que l’esprit voudrait assimiler à des profils anthropomorphes’ [natural sketches of forms which the mind wants to arrange into anthropomorphic shapes].72 Meddeb’s description of the ‘tâche blanche’ [white stain] as remote yet imposing seems to symbolize the deity of monotheism, whilst his references to Petra as a place ‘où règne la Pierre’ [where Stone reigns]73 and where the rocks cast anthropomorphic shadows is a clear reference to the stone idols of polytheism. The passage evokes an image of the two domains at war. Words like ‘bannière’ [banner] and ‘capture’ suggest battle. The fact that the rocks form ‘ébauches naturelles’ [natural sketches] whilst the white f lag is placed on the summit by a human hand suggests (perhaps somewhat disdainfully) that monotheism is an imposition on the natural order, and on natural religion. The banner is an ‘arque polémique des unitaires incapable de défier l’exploit païen’ [polemical arch of the unifiers, incapable of overcoming the pagan onslaught].74 Here ‘unitaire’ may be read as ‘monotheistic’, suggesting that monotheism has not won the battle against polytheism, and has not succeeded in overcoming it. Meddeb thus seems to be spiritually privileging geological forms over the diffuse deity that Marion calls ‘distance’. Moreover, where Marion insists on the hand-crafted nature of idols as a reason for their invalidity, Meddeb’s text suggests conversely that it is monotheistic worship of an aloof deity that is an artificial concept. Meddeb’s texts, however, like Marion’s, demonstrate an awareness of the limitations of an idol, which carries only local and ephemeral meaning. In this way, Aya and other texts do not challenge the ‘distance’ of Marion’s discourse, they merely highlight a human need to bridge it with expression. For Meddeb, the silence cannot endure without being broken, and a variety of spiritual expression testifies to the aloofness of that which is being invoked, in the way that Perec’s and Djebar’s novels are shown to combine acts of speaking and not speaking about an invisible locus in the previous chapter. Meddeb’s challenge is to monotheistic discourse that attempts to limit this variety of expression, imposing one single conceptual bridge to the divine. The passage simultaneously throws up alternative connotations of the white banner. Meddeb claims that ‘mon œil maghrébin assimile cette cime immaculée à quelque célébration maraboutique’ [my Maghrebian eye likens this immaculate summit to some shamanistic celebration],75 suggesting that the f lag calls to mind pagan practices of magic, as well as the blank presence of a monotheistic deity. In addition, the f lag is also a ‘borne signalant l’indépassable, les confines vers lesquels mon corps avancera pour rencontrer l’arbre imaginaire qui précède le rideau d’intense lumière derrière lequel il n’est plus possible de voir’ [boundary stone marking the limit, the confines towards which my body will advance in order to encounter the imaginary tree that stands before the curtain of intense light behind which one cannot see].76 The Quranic resonance here is strong. The idea that a tree and a veil of intense light stand at the limit of human knowledge is featured in the Quran. The connection between intense light and the divine is a recurring motif in the story of Moses, whilst the Quranic chapter called ‘The Star’ addresses a visit made overnight by the Prophet from Mecca to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and then from there to the highest point in the heavens ever to be reached by humanity, and where there stands a Lote tree. The tradition has it that the Prophet was able

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to make a return journey overnight with the help of a speedy mount sent from heaven. Upon hearing of his implausible night journey in the morning, his Meccan detractors mocked his claims, and the following verses are revealed in response: For indeed he (Muhammad) saw him (Allah) at a second descent, Near the Lote-tree beyond which none may pass: Near it is the Garden of Abode. Behold, the Lote-tree was shrouded (in mystery unspeakable!) (His) sight never swerved, nor did it go wrong! For truly did he see, of the Signs of his Lord, the Greatest! 77

The narrator himself ref lects on the next few verses of the chapter, which mockingly juxtapose the Prophet’s miraculous journey with the pagan idols worshipped by the Arabs of Mecca: Mon attention se raffermit à la vue des bétyles qui me transportent dans l’atmosphère de la croyance contre laquelle avait protesté l’islam; le culte des pierres dressées dénoncé par le Coran propose son décor sur les parois qui assail­ lent mon regard. ‘Avez-vous vu al-Lâat et al-Uzzâ/ Et l’autre, Manât la troisième?’.78 [My attention was arrested by the sight of idols which transport me into an atmosphere of the belief against which Islam protested. The cult of erecting stones denounced by the Koran decoratively lines the walls that foist themselves onto my gaze. ‘Have you seen al-Lâat and al-Uzzâ/ And the other, Manât the third?’]

Moved by his pagan surroundings on his last night in Petra, the narrator then ends his account of the visit by describing the way in which he leaves Aya ‘nue’ in his hotel room, and goes out to proclaim homage to the pagan gods mocked in the Quranic verses. He exclaims: ‘Paix sur al-Lât, sur Manât, paix sur al-Uzzâ, sur Dhushara, paix sur le Dieu invisible qu’ils rendent visible’ [Peace be on al-Lât, on Manât, and on al-Uzzâ, on Dhushara, peace be on the invisible God that they render visible].79 His mention of the monotheistic deity in his homage to pagan idols knits together two eras of worship that are made distinctly separate and incompatible in the Quran, and does so in part by taking inspiration from the Quranic text. The narrator’s travels are implicitly paralleled with the Prophet’s night journey, and his reference to a naked Aya suggests some form of Quranic elucidation. However, the narrator expresses a spiritual sentiment that is altogether oppositional to that of the Quranic text in a renowned ancient centre of paganism, suggesting a licence to interpret the text based on an individual’s will and experiences, irrespective of what the text itself might seem to say. This is a literary approach that f louts the traditional mechanisms of Quranic interpretation in place for many centuries, and makes the Quran a fully ‘mutashabih’ text that is enhanced with meaning based on individual association and experience. By weaving together monotheism and its polytheistic antecedent, the narrator undoes the foundational moment of Islam, robbing it of what makes it dist­inctive. His desire to open up the originary moment of Islam, to blur the distinction between Islam and what came before it, is made explicit at various points in the text. On seeing part of his own name inscribed on a pagan idol, the narrator ref lects that: Dans Abd, serviteur, je reconnais le schème sur lequel est construit mon propre nom. La formation de mon anthroponyme, obéissant au théocentrisme


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Furthermore, having seen Petra, he declares: j’affirme, dès le présent, que le paganisme arabe n’est pas un jahiliyya: il ne se confond pas avec l’ère de l’ignorance et de la pénurie. Le site dont je suis le passager conserve le fait qui dément ce mythe.81 [From this moment on, I affirm that Arab paganism is not a jahiliyya: it is not to be mistaken for an era of ignorance and backwardness. The site through which I am passing holds the facts that undo this myth.]

In this statement, the narrator openly challenges the distinction between Islam and its preceding Jahiliyyah period. His undermining of that which is ‘propre’ [own] to a particular identity extends beyond the world of Islam to other religious identities. Inspired by the site of an ancient temple, he exclaims: Par cette œuvre antique cachée dans la montagne entre les déserts, je ravis à la Rome Catholique l’invention du barque. J’ôte, dans la foulée, aux Arabes de l’islam l’idée qu’ils sont les premiers à constituer la ‘Nation du milieu’ comme le leur révèle le Coran.82 [Through this ancient work concealed in the mountains amongst deserts, I strip away from Catholic Rome the invention of the boat. I stop in mid f low the idea circulating amongst Muslim Arabs taught to them by the Koran that they are the founders of the ‘Middle Nation’.]

The sense of timelessness and placelessness he feels in Petra also leads him to declare that ‘je ne sais plus si je suis en Alexandrie ou en Asie Mineure, à Pompéi ou à Herculanum, dans l’ère ptolémaïque ou hellénistique; j’ignore si je suis face à un trompe l’œil ou à un édifice réel’ [I no longer know whether I am in Alexandria or in Asia Minor, in Pompeii or in Herculaneum, in Ptolemaic or Hellenic times; I do not know whether I stand before a chimera or a real construction].83 This euphoric blending of different times and places, as well as drawing on Meccan Quranic verses, echoes Sufi poetry inspired by these verses. The following poem from Ibn Arabi draws on the cosmic imagery of the Meccan Quranic verses, and suggests a sense of ecstasy that comes from escaping time and place: Wonder, A garden among the f lames! My heart can take on any form: A meadow for gazelles, A cloister for monks, For the idols, sacred ground, Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim, The tablets of the Torah, The scrolls of the Quran.

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My creed is Love; Wherever its caravan turns along the way, That is my belief, My faith.84

Meddeb’s text is thus in keeping with a literary tradition that, in highly allegorical terms that are unfettered by the laws and conventions of monotheism, expresses a sense of spiritual elevation. Despite these aesthetic commonalities, the link between the spiritual positions of Ibn Arabi and Meddeb are somewhat questionable. Ibn Arabi’s free use of allegory, although it has earned him some fervent detractors in the Islamic world, has not put him beyond the pale of monotheism, whilst Meddeb declares himself an atheist. Aya suggests that what Meddeb chooses to inherit from Ibn Arabi and from the Meccan verses of the Quran is purely aesthetic. Meddeb’s narrator expresses a similar sense of timelessness and placelessness in his chapter on Mecca roughly half way through the text. Having been moved by the polytheistic relics of Petra, he still speaks of the holy mosque in Mecca, the ultimate shrine to monotheism on earth for Muslims. For example, he calls the shrine at the heart of the mosque ‘la caaba, mon amour’.85 The admiration for the shrine seems to come from the fact that it is a placeless place. Referring to the fact that Muslims around the world turn to face Mecca for their five daily prayers, the narrator observes ‘ici, où que je me mette, la Caaba apparaît à mes yeux: de partout, elle rend visible telle qibla’ [here, wherever I am, the Kaaba appears before me: from all directions it makes the qibla [the direction of the prayer] visible].86 Yet although the narrator seems to be describing a conventional pilgrimage during which he struggles through throngs of pilgrims in order to touch the holy shrine, the journey is not grounded in contextual detail in the way that other journeys narrated in the text are. For example, the narrator reveals that his visit to Petra takes place just after the Gulf War of 1990. Furthermore, his descriptions of his physical surroundings and inconveniences are more vivid. He refers repeatedly to the effects of intense heat, and evokes a sense of progression through the city over a number of days. Despite the fact that a typical greater pilgrimage to Mecca lasts a set number of days and often involves the carrying out of a variety of rites in and around the holy city as well as a visit to Madina where possible, instead of describing any such trip, the chapter turns into a monologue that draws parallels between the Kaaba and the human heart. The result is that the journey to Mecca described by the narrator seems not to be physical, but an inward, spiritual journey such as that advocated by Sufi mysticism. Al Hallâj in particular is believed to have advocated this view. The fact that Aya has not accompanied the narrator on this trip is suggestive of mystical experience. To visit Mecca in metaphorical Sufi terms is to reach a spiritual position that surpasses even sacred scripture. Furthermore, whilst the narrator adopts a reverent monotheistic tone in this chapter on Mecca, elsewhere in Meddeb’s fiction, Mecca does not escape the narrator’s ref lections on the commonalities between Sufism and pre-Islamic polytheism. Admiring an erotic image in Phantasia, the narrator begins to see resonances between the image and allegorical Sufi poetry which expresses mystical love of the divine through erotic allegory. The image simultaneously causes the


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narrator to remember the story of the pre-Islamic Meccan idols Naila and Assaf. According to the Islamic tradition, these are two young lovers who meet for a sexual liaison within the holy precinct of the Kaaba during pilgrimage season (the beginning of pilgrimages to Mecca is believed to date back to the time of Abraham and Ishmael). God turns them to stone in mid-fornication as a warning to other pilgrims that such profanities would bring destruction to their perpetrators. With time, the origin of the erotic statues is forgotten, and Naila and Assaf become revered idols. The traditional aim of the story is to contrast the spiritual depths to which the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah Arabs had sunk just before the Islamic revelation with the spiritual elevation brought to them by the Quran. However Meddeb, once again, uses it to insist upon resonances between the Islamic Sufi tradition with its highly allegorical aesthetics and pre-Islamic polytheism and its physical allegories of the divine. Meddeb’s Aya, in line with the rest of Meddeb’s oeuvre, thus demonstrates a strong engagement with a Sufi literary heritage. This heritage appears to be linked more closely to the allegorical ‘mutashabih’ Quranic verses of the early Meccan period of Islam. Mecca itself features in Meddeb’s work as a space outside the confines of public time and place (and occasionally as a place that precedes expressions of the divine, due to the dark blankness of its central feature, thus offering an unmediated encounter with the divine). Mecca also features as the inspiration behind the literary work of Sufi masters, as well as a source of aesthetic inspiration in his own work. Drawing on Mecca as a symbol of an inner source of spiritual and aesthetic inspiration, as well as on allegorical Quranic verses and highly allegorical Sufi poetry, Meddeb forges an Islamic genealogy which demonstrates the possibility of strongly identifying with a monotheistic heritage without needing to insist upon an enclosed moment of origin, or continuing to adhere to a highly regimented divine law, or even to subscribe to a prescriptive belief in a monotheistic deity. The following section will explore a similar move to open up the enclosed originary narrative moment of Islam. Unlike Meddeb and Benslama, Djebar engages directly with Madina. She too, however, challenges the notion of originary purity of character and religious practice of that time, and demonstrates the ways in which literary space can undermine religious narrative. Djebar takes her narratives from a canonical source of Islamic history, and is thus engaging with Islamic social history in a way that may be seen as responsibly and even respectfully revisionist, as opposed to fundamentally challenging to monotheistic structures. The fact that she engages with Madina as opposed to Mecca also raises the question of what is potentially a gendered approach to Islamic sources, where men and women seem to be aesthetically inspired by different aspects of religious heritage, since there is evidence of other women writers also referring to Madina.

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Assia Djebar’s Foregrounding of Madina in Loin de Médine Djebar’s Loin de Médine is yet another text that clearly seeks to present traditional Islamic narratives in a new light. The text opens at the scene of the death of the Prophet in Madina, and proceeds to narrate a variety of stories from the lives of the women who were closest to him, and in some instances of those who resisted his message (these often combining claims to prophethood with a special talent for poetic language). Many of the events described in the text are well-known major incidents in the history of Islam, whilst other narratives bring to the fore slightly more obscure episodes. The text cites the extensive work of ninth-century Muslim historian Al-Tabari as the source of the material featured. The stories are told with an emphasis on the thoughts and emotional responses of women to major events in their lives in ways that are absent from the more official versions of historical narratives, which employ a detached and impersonal tone. In some instances, the women take over the narrative and offer these responses in the first person. The novel was published in 1991 in the wake of the political rise of the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) in Algeria. The party had won the general elections that year, but were prevented from taking office by the existing government, who did not want an Islamist takeover. Susan Slyomovics notes that women became caught up in the violent dispute between the government and militant Islamist forces that ensued. She writes that women were affected by the general targeting of intellectuals by the FIS and related militant groups, but beyond that ‘because they were women’: ‘working women, unveiled women, and women active in social and political associations’.87 She documents cases of trains being prevented from travelling by militants because women and men sat in compartments together, and of entire schools being threatened because teachers were not veiled, gym was taught to girls, and boys and girls were taught together in class. Before this outbreak of violence, Slyomovics cites one of the leaders of the FIS, Ali Ben Hadj, describing the ideal blanket role of women in society in an interview he gave in 1989: In a real Islamic society, the woman is not destined to work and the head of state must provide her with remuneration. In this way, she will not leave her home and consecrate herself to the education of men. The woman is a producer of men: she produces no material goods but this essential thing which is the Muslim.88

She notes, moreover, that feminist disenchantment can be traced back even earlier to the Family Code introduced by the ruling nationalist FLN party in 1984. This was a conservative set of laws that ‘reduced women to the status of minors, subject to the law of father or husband’.89 Thus, at the time of the publication of Djebar’s novel, women had been the subject of a patriarchal public discourse that was both nationalist and Islamist. Her text addresses both the content of what is being prescribed for women, as well as the advocacy involved in prescribing it. The novel lays a feminine claim to narratives that are both religious and historic, and that are used as a blueprint for a structuring of contemporary Muslim women’s identity. The accounts of women’s lives featured in the text are peppered with clear references


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to the modern relevance of such historic examples to debates on and by women in contemporary Muslim societies. Care is taken to represent the women as different from each other in character and social circumstance, as well as to emphasize the serial monogamy practised by certain figures (Oum Keltoum, for example, marries four times, and on one occasion obtains a divorce from a husband for speaking to her too gruff ly). The image we get is one of a vibrant feminine community where women of all kinds are intellectually, emotionally, linguistically, and sexually alert, and where they have a profound impact on public life. Djebar heads the italicized sections narrated in the first person with the word ‘rawiya’ (a female narrator or storyteller). The term is derived from the Arabic root that describes the act of narrating hadith. This involves bringing to the fore or reaffirming a prophetic saying or tradition, which in turn contributes to the shaping of legal or theological matters. This depiction of the pioneering women of Islam in Loin challenges the insistence of modern Islamist politics on repressive measures that seek to limit their social role. Moreover, the term ‘rawiya’ can also be used for a traditional street storyteller, or any narrator or storyteller in general, and can stretch to Djebar and the named and unnamed feminine narrative voices of her novels. The text thus makes a connection between the early rawiyas of Madina, whose narrations were subsumed into a wider official religious discourse (as part of canonized collections of hadith, for example), the traditional oral transmitters of religious or folkloric tales, either within a family or in the marketplace, as well as the feminine voice of the modern novel. By virtue of featuring a feminine narrative voice that transmits other feminine voices, Loin thus posits itself as a natural heir to the early narratives of Muslim women, and challenges the idea that such narratives should only be transmitted through traditional channels. Furthermore, Loin is closest in style and structure to Djebar’s Femmes D’Alger dans leur appartement, another text that knits together a vignette of women’s stories. The representations in this particular text are of Algerian women during the struggle for Independence as well as in post-war Algeria. It takes its name from Delacroix’s 1834 orientalist painting, which features Algerian women dressed in sumptuous clothing, sucking on hookah pipes whilst gazing dreamily into the distance and being attended by a black maidservant. The narratives in the text work in juxtaposition to the Orientalist image. The women represented are young and old, from educated and traditional backgrounds, and are geographically dispersed, some of them living in Paris. Far removed from Delacroix’s world of vacant gazes, many are haunted by a variety of individual and collective memories and experiences. The similarities between Loin and Femmes d’Alger suggest parallels between Islamist and Orientalist approaches to history and narrative. Both discourses offer a rhetoric that stamps out nuance and difference, dealing only in generic types. They also both operate on a superficial level, representing an outer reality with no substance. Femmes d’Alger makes the case that Delacroix’s detailed image conveys nothing of the lives of Algerian women. Likewise, in spite of all their strong insistence on strict interpretations of gender roles in Islam in an attempt to follow earlier, purer religious examples,90 Djebar makes the case that Islamists do not rekindle the

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variety and vibrancy of the earliest communities of women in Islam. In this way, the Islamists are ‘Loin de Médine’. As with Meddeb’s and Benslama’s texts, the question in Loin is one of time, of the importance of the relationship of the past to the present in the building of individual and collective identity. Unlike Meddeb’s and Benslama’s texts, Loin engages directly and extensively with the narratives of Madina, suggesting that they are not completely to be dismissed or allegorized when it comes to exploring the relationship of the originary narratives of the past to the present and future. In the ‘Avant-Propos’ to Loin, Djebar says ‘la fiction, comblant les béances de la mémoire collective, s’est révélée nécessaire pour la mise en espace que j’ai tentée là’ [fiction — filling in the gaps in the collective memory — essential for me to be able to recreate those times in which I wish to dwell].91 On the one hand, Djebar’s desire to fill the cavities in collective memory could be attributed to the fact that women writers feel a greater defensive urgency to respond to the changes to women’s lives proposed by Islamist lobby groups. For example, Fatima Mernissi’s Le Harem politique, which, although not a literary text, is often studied in conjunction with Loin, levels an even sterner, more open critique of the way in which traditional texts are composed and read such that they favour the exclusion of women from public life. The difference in attitudes towards Madina could also be attributed to the fact that women writers feel that they are heirs to a different Islamic literary/narrative heritage than their male counterparts. In Le Harem Politique, Mernissi describes the way in which her grandmother would become most animated when telling her grandchildren stories about Madina. Coming from a culture where the shrines of local saints were at the heart of the spiritual life of a community, Mernissi’s grand­mother’s imagination would come to life at the thought of the ultimate shrine in Madina, burial place of the Prophet himself. Her enthusiasm for Madina would surpass the enthusiasm she would feel for Mecca, which is the prime site of Muslim pilgrimage. Aspects of Djebar’s oeuvre are dedicated to the transposition of women’s words and stories from the private spaces and languages in which they are narrated, to more accessible transcribed forms of language, in order to protect them from being excluded from history. Loin refracts the voices of the women of the first community of Muslim women in order to illustrate their diversity, and to highlight the very personal aspects of their experiences by evoking emotional responses that are absent from the official annals of religious history, which have a tendency to ‘occulter toute présence féminine’ [let any female presence be overshadowed].92 The women represented are made part of a surviving community of women who narrate (mostly orally) their life experiences. Djebar’s text thus becomes part of the chain of women storytellers that pass on the stories of the women of Madina. The fact that Djebar calls her work a ‘roman’, and that she sympathetically represents non-Muslim as well as Muslim women therein, suggests that the chosen figures have inspired her imagination, not just her political sensibilities. And where Madina is absent from the work of Meddeb, the Sufi poetry that has had such a profound impact on the work of writers like Meddeb and Ben Jelloun is absent from the work of Djebar. This could, on the one hand, be attributed to disparities in education. Where the Moroccan Ben Jelloun and the Tunisian Meddeb may have received a more


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even-handed bilingual education, Djebar does not appear to have had the same exposure to Arabic Sufi poetry. In her autobiography, Nulle Part dans la maison de mon père, she discusses the fact that during her adolescence, she harbours an ardent wish to study classical Arabic literature. She requests the timetabling of lessons in that subject at her French boarding school in Algeria, but is refused on the grounds that there is insufficient interest in it amongst her peers. Instead, Djebar comes to exchange letters with a student of classical Arabic who encloses Arabic verses and their translations in every correspondence, and who later becomes her first husband. Moreover, Djebar refers in Nulle Part to a time when she was reading the twelfth-century mystic poet Rumi’s collection of poems the Mathnawi on a plane journey she undertook in her forties. Thus her exposure to mystical poetry seems to be too little too late for it to have a significant impact on her literary style. Indeed, in the ‘Avant-Propos’ to Loin, Djebar thanks an Arab poet for helping her to read the classical language of the early historic sources from which she derives her narratives. Moreover, most canonized examples of devotional Sufi poetry seem to come from men, with the exception of the eighth-century saint Rabia al-Adawiyya. There is, however, little evidence of the inf luence of Rabia’s poetry on Djebar’s work. Loin testifies instead to the fact that the stories of women from the time of Madina have struck a greater chord with Djebar. In Nulle Part, Djebar repeatedly draws parallels between her own life and that of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. She notes, in the first instance, that they share a name, Djebar’s birth name also being Fatima (Fatma). She narrates how, when asked out by a fellow adolescent in front of their schoolmates, she imagines him before her like a young Ali asking Fatima to marry him (even though she narrates in Loin that Ali asks the Prophet for Fatima’s hand in marriage, and not Fatima herself ). Moreover, she acknowledges the fact that the title of her autobiography alludes to the story of Fatima (narrated at length in Loin) who, like Djebar, enjoys a strong relationship with her father,93 and who is prevented from inheriting his worldly belongings after his death. Djebar, as a child of the colonial era, feels she too is cut off from the world of her father. She lists her adolescent love for another man, the Algerian War of Independence and her role in it, as well as subsequent violence in Algeria as factors that take her away from the sheltered universe provided by her father. She asserts: Je n’ai plus de ‘maison de mon père’. Je suis sans lieu, là-bas, non point seulement parce-ce que le père est mort, affaibli dans un pays dit libéré où toutes les filles sont impunément déshéritées par les fils de leurs pères. Je suis sans lieu là-bas depuis ce jour d’octobre — un an et quelques jours avant qu’une autre explosion ne soit déclenchée sur cette même terre.94 [I no longer have a ‘father’s home’. I am without a place there, not only because the father is dead, having grown weak in a so-called liberated nation where all the girls are disinherited by the sons of their fathers with impunity. From this day in October [a day Djebar almost died throwing herself under a tram after quarrelling with her boyfriend], I am without a place there — a year and some days before another explosion [the Algerian War of Independence] would erupt on this same land.]

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Djebar thus posits her story as one that strongly resonates with that of the Prophet’s daughter, expressing the same feelings of alienation after her father’s death due to the undoing of a particular order with which he is associated. It would seem, therefore, that Djebar’s inclination towards Madina where Meddeb favours Mecca is determined by differences in personal experience, as well as by her narrative tastes and exposures. Whereas Meddeb identifies with male literary and philosophical figures from Islamic heritage, Djebar is drawn to stories of the real-life experiences of the first female community of Islam. Djebar’s privileging of Madina in her exploration of the originary narratives of Islam is far, however, from being an indication that she favours the nexus of ‘muhkam’ legal injunctions so strongly insisted upon by Islamist movements. The image of Madina projected in Loin is not one of a pure and cohesive spiritual community. The text fuses together the stories of women who adopt Islam with those who reject it or remain indifferently on its margins in the way that Meddeb merges together the pre-Islamic and the Islamic. In the first section of the novel, ‘La Liberté et le défi’ [Liberty and defiance], the story of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima is narrated amongst the stories of women known in the Islamic tradition as false prophetesses who claimed to carry divine messages that put them on an equal footing with the Prophet. Fatima’s disappointment with the decision of the Prophet’s political successor not to allow her to inherit her father’s worldly belongings based on a phrase he has heard the Prophet himself utter is paralleled through a common underlying sense of frustration and stif led ambition with the stories of the false prophetesses, Selma and Sadjah. Furthermore, the text is keen to highlight the fact that the women of Madina continue to be haunted by sensibilities from outside their new geopolitical space. One of the Prophet’s wives, Sawda, for example, is, according to Djebar’s narrative, reported to have mourned the death of her father and brother in battle against the Muslims: ‘Elle, femme du Prophète, elle ne pourra maîtriser sa douleur au point d’apostropher les captifs amenés dans sa maison; elle leur fait honte de ne pas avoir, eux aussi, combattu jusqu’à la mort — combattu contre les Musulmans!’ [Although the wife of the Prophet, her grief is so uncontrollable that she upbraids the prisoners brought to her house, making them ashamed at not having fought to the death, like those of her own family — fighting against Muslims!].95 Similarly, the Coptic wife of one of Madina’s Muslim poets is made to feel that her mother tongue is incompatible with her new Muslim identity. Upon hearing her speak her native tongue, her husband exclaims ‘je te croyais islamisée!’ [I thought you had embraced Islam!],96 to which she defiantly responds: ‘est-ce que contraire à l’Islam que de parler la langue de ses pères et mères?’ [Is it contrary to Islam to speak the language of one’s parents?].97 The narration of the story of Aisha casually features the young wife of the Prophet using a polytheistic term of exclamation, ‘Grands Dieux’ [Ye Gods].98 The rigorous scribes of official, traditionally referenced history would most likely deem the use of such a term by Aisha (a young woman whose family had already adopted Islam by the time she was born, and who therefore would have no pre-Islamic habits to slide into) as impossible. Its use in Loin, however, once again serves to suggest that women’s language, idiom, and sensibilities in Madina were not purely Islamic in the way


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depicted by contemporary Islamists, but were equally shaped by their experiences outside Islam. In addition, the text merges the past experiences of the women of Madina with those of contemporary Algerian women, as well as women from the early colonial period in Algeria. The chapter ‘La Chanteuse des satires’ features the story of a poetess who composes verses that insult the Prophet and his religion, and whose Muslim captors attempt to silence her by having her teeth removed and her hands chopped off. This mutilation does not alter her resolve: ‘je les maudirai avec mes mains, mes mains coupées ... mon chant leur restera insaisissable, tel l’épervier qu’ils n’atteignent pas!’ [I shall curse them with my hands, with my severed hands! ... My song will be inaudible to them, like a hawk they can never reach!].99 This incident recalls that in L’Amour, la fantasia where Djebar’s narrator imagines placing a stylus in the severed hand of an anonymous woman, violently killed by the French in the early massacres of the colonial period, and helping it to reproduce the woman’s story. The resonances between the narrations parallel the two experiences of feminine struggle, suggesting that throughout history women have repeatedly suffered the same forms of physical oppression and verbal censorship. Poetry itself in the novel is strongly associated with women, in a way that calls to mind Benslama’s connecting of the literary and the feminine. Not only does the text offer three examples of poetically gifted women who take up positions against Islam, but even within the Muslim community, poetry is deemed subversive. A young wife speaks in the first person of the literary games she would play with her husband, and the chastisement this earned him: Abou Bekr, passant au-dessous, entendit le bruit de nos murmures. Nous avons continué notre bavardage: à cette époque, il est vrai, Abdallah s’était mis en tête de rivaliser avec moi en jeu d’improvisation poétique: peu importait les thèmes, mêmes les plus saugrenus (si nous devenions oiseaux dans l’azur, si nous nous perdions dans le désert, si nous nous souvenions soudain avoir été Adam et Ève ...). Était-ce à ce point sacrilège, tant de liberté d’esprit, d’ivresse légère à exercer à deux? [Abou Bekr passed beneath us, heard our whisperings. We continued conversing. At that time, it is true, Abdullah had the idea of setting up contests with me in improvising poems; the themes mattered little, often they were quite absurd (imagining we were birds in the blue empyrean, imagining we were lost in the desert, or suddenly recalling our lives as Adam and Eve...). Was it then sacrilegious to let our imaginations range freely, losing ourselves in such light-hearted, exhilarating exercises?]100

These amorous poetic tête-à-têtes attract outside pressure on the couple to divorce in order not to remain so distracted from their worship. The couple are then permitted to remarry when the extent of Abdallah’s melancholy after the separation becomes known. The Muslim poet Hassan Ibn Thabit is featured in the capacity of a man who chastises his Coptic wife for speaking her mother tongue, and no mention is made of his own poetic endeavours. Similarly, in the story of Atyka and Abdallah, it is not reported that Abou Bekr himself, who forces his son to divorce his poetic wife, is widely documented as having had an ardent admiration of poetry. This omission reinforces the idea that every approach to a narrative or

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retelling of it involves some degree of interpretative distortion, with certain details being emphasized over others, creating a need for continued ref lection on originary narratives from many possible angles. Indeed, the myriad narrators in Loin retain a conscious engagement with what is at stake in revisiting the narratives of the early women of Madina, particularly through a process of fictionalization. Speaking of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, and the way in which she has been represented in the novel as wishing to inherit from her father and pass the inheritance on to her sons as though she herself had been a son in the family chain, the narrator muses: Est-ce par trop librement façonner une ‘idée’ de Fatima? Est-ce par trop l’animer d’une pulsion de masculinité ou d’une ferveur filiale si forte que cette fiction se déchire? Risque l’invraisemblable, tout au moins l’anachronique, par l’accent mis sur la frustration supposée ... En somme, faire Fatima tellement fille de son père, c’est risquer de la rendre moins parfaite musulmane. [Is this to form a far too free ‘idea’ of Fatima? Is it to imagine her driven by an excessive wish for masculinity, or so strong a filial fervour, that this fiction falls apart? Risking the improbable at the very least, the anachronistic, by emphasizing her supposed frustration ... In a word, to make Fatima so much her father’s daughter is to risk making her less perfect a Muslim.]101

By animating Fatima with strong human passions and ambitions, the narrative conf licts with less probing accounts of her life that stop at naming her a pious and loving daughter, without examining too closely the ways in which her devotion is played out, and the moral judgements that this might elicit in a contemporary patriarchal society where women must not aspire to be like men. Such a f leshedout narrative risks diminishing her as a perfect Muslim when measured against contemporary expectations. But it also calls into question the givens on which such expectations are built. The text endorses the idea of f luid language and its importance in preventing ideas from sedimenting. The novel moves swiftly from one narrative to the next, maintaining a constant pace of movement and change. One rawiya even questions the validity of her narrative contributions based on her own personal lack of movement: Je parle, mais ai-je le droit de rapporter, même si c’est seulement à ma sœur, ce qui se dit dans les rues de Médine? Est-ce qu’une rawiya peut se sentir assez d’autorité pour transmettre ce que ses yex ont vu, ce que ses oreilles ont entendu parmi les hommes? Ou faudrait-il pour cela devenir une errante, une mendiante, surtout une femme sans enfants, sans fils dont elle s’honore, le contraire d’Oum Salem et de moi-même qui sortons si peu de nos demeures à Médine. [I speak, but have I the right to report, even if only to my sister, what is being said in the streets of Madina? May a rawiya feel she has sufficient authority to transmit what her eyes have seen, what her ears have heard? Or, in order to do that, must she become a wayfarer, a beggar, above all, a childless woman, without sons who bring her honour, the opposite of Umm Salem and myself, who so seldom leave our homes in Madina?]102

The narrator worries that living a settled life makes her unfit to pass on the stories


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she has to tell. It is not that she is not privy to the stories of Madina. Rather she is concerned that she is not qualified to pass on any narrative if she does not lead a detached life. A narrator free of worldly responsibilities and concerns would perhaps produce a narrative that is more f luid. Moreover, as in La Disparition de la langue française, this quality of narrative f luidity is closely associated with literary language. The text notes that Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, speaks using ‘les phrases qui ne se durcissent pas en formules; qui reste poésie. Elle se cherche une forme’ [sentences which do not harden into formulas; which remain poetry. She seeks a form].103 Poetry is deemed to have a pre-formulaic quality. Aisha is known for narrating many incidents from the life of the Prophet, and is thus a major contributor to the canonical corpus of hadith. She is portrayed in Loin as a storyteller: ‘Doucement, devant les enfants, filles et garçons sous le charme, elle raconte. Elle conte. Elle n’invente jamais: elle recrée’ [softly, before the children, spellbound girls and boys, she recounts. She invents nothing: she recreates].104 The narratives which now carry a juridical weight in religious thinking are reimagined at their origin as stories that are told again and again to entertain children (boys and girls together, in an arrangement that would displease some of Algeria’s Islamists of the early 1990s). In this way, Madina is imagined as, in some senses, a pre-juridical time of narrative f luidity and porousness, rather than a time of fixed absolutes to be recreated rigidly. Whilst narratives from the time have a role in Islamic courts and theological discussions, Loin dwells on the idea that passing them on is also an act of nostalgic recounting of memories and storytelling for pleasure, and one that can nuance or even destabilize the absolute moral judgements that are being derived from them. Thus their status as stories that were passed on orally amongst a community of people locked in relationships with the Prophet and with one another is presented as an essential part of their identity that must be maintained in order for them to be effective foundational narratives. It would also soften and nuance their dogmatic usages. In addition to its references to poetic language, Loin refers to Madina as the ‘premier théâtre islamique’ [first Islamic drama].105 The notion of recreating the social conditions of Madina is compared with the repetition of theatre. Madina is a theatre because it is watched. Many devoted Muslims study it in order to emulate the example it offers. It also offers a script for other communities to rehearse, making the ritual of attempting to live like the people of Madina a form of performance. The term returns at the end of the novel in the verses on the ‘Filles d’Agar’ [Daughters of Agar], where the site of the pilgrimage in Mecca is described in the following terms: ‘Une fois dans l’année | Une fois au moins dans la vie | l’unique théâtre | pour eux et par eux | s’ordonne la seule fiction islamique’ [Once a year | Once at least in a lifetime | the only dramatic performance | for them and by them | is organized | the only Islamic fictitious tale].106 The pilgrimage commemorates the experiences of Abraham and his wife Agar in the vicinity of Mecca through its rites. For example, pilgrims are required to walk between two hills called the Safa and Marwa seven times just as Agar did in the deserted valley where Mecca now stands. Agar was left in the valley with her son Ishmael by her husband, and climbed the hills to look far into the distance for any parties of travellers who might bring them sustenance. The

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rite reminds pilgrims of the difficulties she had to endure. Djebar’s text once again highlights the theatrical element in re-enacting Agar’s steps. It goes so far as to call the pilgrimage a ‘fiction islamique’. The reasons behind this are unclear, but having laid out a fictionalization of the historic narratives of the early women of Islam in the preceding pages, the text may be proposing an idea of fiction as a discourse that stays open to reinterpretation and retelling. There is a constant f lux of Muslims re-experiencing Agar’s story in their own unique circumstances. Thus references to the story as a ‘fiction’ do not carry the same implications of lack of authenticity and falsely generated meaning as they do in the thinking of Benslama. Reviewing Loin in 1994, Ziauddin Sardar hails it a ‘significant’ book for all Muslims because it demonstrates ‘that the same words can lead two equally pious and righteous individuals to opposing actions’.107 In other words, it highlights the multiplicity of valid interpretative approaches to foundational narratives, thus levelling a critique at any attempt to limit the ways in which these are read. Sardar acknowledges that the book might ‘upset the sensibilities of some orthodox Muslims’, but argues that it does not ‘have a Rushdie-like, god-shaped hole’. Djebar does not go as far as shaking the notion of the validity of such narratives altogether. She merely makes the case for a more nuanced engagement with them which, in many respects, reinforces their sense of importance. Her text suggests a desire to celebrate the variety of feminine Islamic heritage that constitutes a significant part of the history of Madina. This is a far cry from Meddeb’s dismissal of Madina and its importance to Muslim identity. Ultimately Djebar shows that, as a public figure, she has the right to engage with public themes in her work, including that of the role of women in society as dictated by religion. Loin does not presume to undermine monotheistic scripture, but only to contribute to a public debate on its interpretation. Conclusion As discussed above, Benslama notes the skewed Islamist perception of historic time born of a disenchantment with present socio-political circumstances. This disen­ chantment leads to a transformation of the historic Madina into what effectively is a timeless utopia. Benslama does not make clear whether this is the case with political Islamist groups only, or a characteristic of wider Muslim communities more generally. Once again, there is no sustained effort to distinguish explicitly between the two, and there is an implicit sense in which there is no contemporary distinction. Benslama’s assertion suggests that there has been a loss of traditional Islamic means of connecting with the past, which results in the fact that Madina is no longer examined through the traditional interpretative Islamic lens. Instead, he makes the case that all adherents of the faith now follow a reduced permutation of the religion with minimal substance. This makes the term ‘Islamist’ a legitimate label for all Muslims, no matter their level of political engagement in their communities. Similarly, Meddeb’s work persistently includes Islamic modes of dress and personal creed and rites in his critique of contemporary Muslim ways of life. He does not limit his criticism to political and militant groups. Aya expresses the need


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to look beyond Madina at a much broader human history, suggesting that this will lead to an inevitable dissolution of any exclusivist Muslim sense of identity. Beyond a critique of Islamism, Meddeb presents Islam itself as something which is socially defunct. On the other hand, in revisiting the time of Madina and giving voice to figures from that time, Loin prioritizes it as part of a history that holds some value for Muslims, albeit one that needs to be interpreted differently. This suggests that non-Islamist readings of the narratives of Madina are possible, and that there is an Islam that continues to live beyond Islamism. In all cases, there is an implicit critique of the lack of anthropological variety involved in the heavy focus on Madina, as well as on the way in which Madina is depicted. This aspiration towards a Madina that is monolithic, with all its inhabitants living literally by the word of God is seen by Meddeb, Benslama, and even Djebar as the aspiration towards a culturelessness and placelessness. People from myriad communities around the globe seek to return to a state of being that is very specific to a particular space and time. This seems, from the outset, to require some degree of self-effacement, of a denial of one’s cultural identity. Yamina Benguigui’s three-part documentary on the Islamic veil, Femmes d’Islam, captures this understanding of scriptural identity as devoid of any cultural specificity. When asked about the difference between the traditional Algerian full body veil (the ‘haik’) and the more practical contemporary veiling methods preferred by women today (many of whom have roles outside the home in the public sphere, unlike their forebears who wore the ‘haik’), a young student responds that whilst the ‘haik’ was a cultural imposition that dates back to Ottoman times and is thus associated with Ottoman identity, the contemporary veiling style is purely Islamic, free from the inf luence of any particular culture. This is a move away from the local and the specific towards a more global Islamic monoculture, and may perhaps be seen as generally symptomatic of globalization. There is the suggestion here of crudeness and an impoverishment of cultural identity. This is also a characteristic of Muslim societies against which Meddeb, Djebar, and Benslama rebel. Whereas Islamists seem to shun culture and tradition, Aya and Loin celebrate it. And whereas Islamism favours singular literalist interpretations of Quranic verses and hadith narratives, both texts favour nuance and creative modes of interpretation. The process of using fiction to open up foundational narratives continues in more recent texts. Published seventeen years after Djebar’s novel, Selim Bachi’s novel Le Silence de Mahomet documents the inf luence of Djebar’s work in the acknowledgements: Je tiens aussi à rendre homage à Assia Djebar qui, la première, s’est attelée à éclairer une des facettes les plus intéressantes de la vie de Mahomet, sa relation avec les femmes, et c’est dans son merveilleux roman, Loin de Médine. [I also wish to thank Assia Djebar who was the first writer to turn the spotlight on one of the most interesting aspects of Mohammed’s life, his relationship with women, in her wonderful novel, Loin de Médine.]108

The novel describes the life and character of the Prophet in four parts, narrated by four of his closest companions, each of whom also narrates their personal feuds and preoccupations. The text goes even further than Djebar’s in its allegorization of the

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sacred. The Quran itself is represented as poetry, allegedly inspired by Syrian monks frequented by the Prophet. The text insists that, contrary to what is documented by Islamic historians and in the Quran, the Prophet was literate, and that he himself produced the Quran based on the inspiration he received through the reading of ancient scrolls. The Quran is quoted extensively throughout the novel, but is arranged in different poetic forms (couplets, quatrains, etc.), or as literary prose, and is not versified in the traditional way. One of the companions of the Prophet even asserts in the novel that there is no such thing as a Quranic text (alluding to the fact that the Quran was compiled and written down after the Prophet’s death, and thus is not an authentic product of his time). Bachi’s novel suggests a sustained trend in using fiction to fictionalize the Quran in its entirety. The suggestion that the Prophet takes his inspiration from old monks and ancient scrolls, and not from a divine source, unsettles the notion of God himself, since it overlooks any process of revelation in the transmission of the Quran. Barnaby Rogerson makes the case that Islamic history has a potent grip over the imagination, and this is borne out in texts like Bachi’s that thematize the story of the Prophet and his companions: The life of the Prophet Muhammad is a story of overpowering pathos and beauty. It is history, tragedy and enlightenment compressed into one tale [...] He [the Prophet] is perceived in many ways. He is the ultimate stern patriarch, the man of men who stands at the forefront of all the saints, heroes and good rulers from centuries of proud Muslim history [...] He is the great lover of women [...] He is the wise sage [...] He is also the savant of mystics [...]. He is the hero of heroes.109

Indeed, both the literary texts that have featured in this chapter testify to the impact of monotheistic discourse on the imagination, since they have embedded dis­cussions of scripture and tradition in a medium that is largely based on the imagination. The texts draw attention to a problem of general cultural impoverishment, and not just a form of cultural impoverishment, and not just violent political activity, high­lighting another aspect of contemporary religious reality their authors find lamentable. These texts merge the two phenomena, suggesting that it is this form of cultural impoverishment that is responsible for the impoverished public uses of scripture. Notes to Chapter 4 1. These verses are intertwined throughout the Quranic text, and do not appear chronologically. The act of overlooking or discarding them would thus lead to major structural intervention. 2. The Quran, 78:6–19, trans. by A. Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 3. The Quran, 4:176, trans. by A.Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 4. Michael Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, ‘Qur’anic Dialogics: Islamic Poetics and Politics for Muslims and for Us’, in The Interpretation of Dialogue, ed. by Tullio Maranhão (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), pp. 120–53. 5. Ibid., p. 126. 6. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 53. 7. Fischer and Abedi, ‘Qur’anic Dialogics’, p. 135.


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8. Ibid., p. 135. 9. Ibid., p. 34. 10. Ibid., p. 35. 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid. 14. Ibid. 15. Ibid. 16. See George Lang, ‘Jihad, Ijtihad, and Other Dialogical Wars in La Mère du printemps, Le Harem politique and Loin de Médine’, in The Marabout and the Muse: New Approaches to Islam in African Literature, ed. by Kenneth Harrow (Portsmouth, NH and London: Heinemann, 1996), pp. 1–22. 17. Fethi Benslama, La Psychanalyse à l’épreuve de l’islam (Paris: Flammarion, 2002), p. 17/Psycho­ analysis and the Challenge of Islam, trans. by Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 1. 18. Ibid., p. 18/p. 1. 19. Ibid., p. 20/p. 3. 20. Ibid. 21. See Introduction, n. 12, on the difference between ‘postcolonial’ and ‘post-colonial’. 22. Benslama, La Psychanalyse, p. 20/p. 3. 23. Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield Algeria 1988–2002: Studies in a Broken Polity (London and New York: Verso, 2003), p. 4. 24. Ibid., p. 5. 25. Ibid. 26. Ibid. 27. Personal communication. 28. Benslama, La Psychanalyse, p. 32/p. 12. 29. Ibid., p. 55/p. 28. 30. Ibid., p. 145/p. 89. 31. Ibid., p. 189/p. 122. 32. Fethi Benslama, Une Fiction troublante: de l’origine en partage (La Tour d’Aigues: Editions de l’Aube, 1994), p. 47. 33. Ibid. 34. Benslama, La Psychanalyse, p. 88/p. 50. 35. Ibid., p. 88/p. 50. 36. Ibid., p. 49/p. 25. 37. Ibid. 38. Ibid., p. 49/p. 24. 39. Ibid., p. 29/pp. 9–10. 40. Ibid., p. 29/p. 10. 41. Ibid., p. 30/p. 10. 42. Ibid., p. 53/p. 26. 43. Ibid., p. 36/p. 15. 44. Ibid., p. 36/p. 14. 45. Ibid., p. 36/p. 15. 46. Ibid., p. 40/p. 17. 47. Benslama, Une Fiction troublante, p. 17. 48. Ibid., p. 20. 49. Ibid., p. 13. 50. Ibid. 51. Ibid., p. 19. 52. Ibid., p. 38. 53. Ibid. 54. Ibid. 55. Ibid., p. 54.

Divine Senses of Place


56. Ibid. 57. Ibid., p. 55. 58. Ibid. 59. Ibid., p. 90. 60. Abdelwahab Meddeb, Aya dans les villes (Saint-Clément-de-Rivière: Fata Morgana, 1999), p. 17. 61. Abdelwahab Meddeb, La Maladie de l’islam (Paris: Seuil, 2002), p. 13/The Malady of Islam, trans. by Pierre Joris and Anne Reid (New York: Persus, 2003), p. 7. 62. Meddeb, Face à l’islam, p. 155. 63. Ibid. 64. Meddeb, La Maladie de l’islam, p. 75/p. 60. 65. See Ronnie Scharfman, ‘Nomadism and Transcultural Writing in the Work of Abdelwahab Meddeb’, L’Esprit Créateur, 41 (2001), 105–13 (p. 105). 66. The Quran, 33:33, trans. by A. Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 67. Meddeb, Aya, p. 9. 68. Ibid. 69. Ibid. 70. Ibid. 71. Ibid. 72. Ibid. 73. Ibid. 74. Ibid. 75. Ibid. 76. Ibid., pp. 9–10. 77. The Quran, 53:13–18, trans. by A. Yusuf Ali [accessed 16 December 2013]. 78. Meddeb, Aya, p. 18. 79. Ibid., p. 39. 80. Ibid., p. 19. 81. Ibid., p. 16. 82. Ibid., p. 19. 83. Ibid., pp. 18–19. 84. Ibn Arabi, trans. by unknown, [accessed 12 April 2010]. 85. Meddeb, Aya, p. 75. 86. Ibid. 87. Susan Slyomovics, ‘Hassiba Ben Bouali, If You could See Our Algeria! Women and Public Space in Algeria’, Middle East Report, 192 (1995), 8–13 (p. 11). 88. Ibid. 89. Ibid. 90. The view of senior FIS member Ben Hadj on the social role of women cited above (n. 87), as well as the strong views on women’s education harboured by Algerian Islamist militants are, needless to say, based on certain interpretations of the Quran that are widely disputed on many counts, although there is no space to delve into the counterarguments here. 91. Assia Djebar, Loin de Médine (Paris: Albin Michel, 1991), p. 7/Far From Madina, trans. by Dorothy Blair (London: Quartet, 1994), p. xv. 92. Ibid. 93. Although Djebar also discusses the ways in which her relationship with her father was somewhat fraught at times in Nulle Part. 94. Assia Djebar, Nulle Part dans la maison de mon père (Paris: Fayard, 2007), p. 386. 95. Djebar, Loin, p. 51/p. 42. 96. Ibid., p. 195/p. 171. 97. Ibid. 98. Ibid., p. 288/p. 258.


Divine Senses of Place

99. Ibid., p. 125/p. 107. 100. Ibid., p. 201/p. 176. 101. Ibid., p. 59/pp. 49–50. 102. Ibid., p. 186/p. 162. 103. Ibid., p. 303/p. 274. 104. Ibid. 105. Ibid., p. 8/p. xv. 106. Ibid., p. 306/p. 279. 107. Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Barefoot in the Desert: Far From Madina’, The Independent, 21 May 1994. 108. Selim Bachi, Le Silence du Mahomet (Paris: Gallimard, 2008), p. 351/The Silence of Mohammed, trans. by Sue Rose (London: Pushkin Press, 2010), p. 325. 109. Barnaby Rogerson, The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography (London: Abacus, 2003), pp. 3–4.

Conclusion v

I have attempted in this book to investigate a number of theoretical ref lections on the relationship between literature and sacred scripture. I have also demonstrated the ways in which these theories may allow us to identify subtextual preoccupations with aspects of scriptural narrative, or even the notion of the divine. Where such preoccupations are openly identifiable, I have discussed them through use of a theoretical language that would help give definition to the issues they raise, since all the novels that have featured here engage with very specific political circumstances. Overall these novels, which are mostly from North Africa and the Middle East, betray the desire to question public uses of religious narrative. They offer themselves as examples of personal ref lections on scriptures that have been taken over by political discourses that are perceived to be using them as a basis for undifferentiated collective identity. The contention that I have grappled with here is whether novels (like other forms of literature) may be used at will as literary expressions of (largely political and sometimes theological) dissent, or whether fictional literary writing is inherently challenging to sacred scripture, and thus automatically a textual force with the potential to destabilize monotheistic scriptures and paradigms through the mere fact of its existence, irrespective of its themes and issues. I have traced the emergence of North African voices, those of Meddeb and Benslama, that strongly insist on literature’s inherent capability to undermine sacred scripture. Both writers argue that societies with a thriving literary output often move away from rigid, literalist, and dogmatic readings of scripture. Literature facilitates the integration of scripture into personal experience, whilst causing it to cease to function as doctrine. In addition, for Meddeb in particular, it dissociates the notion of the divine from the mono­ theistic concept of God. Ritual surrounding the divine fragments into localized practices that merge Quranic elements with elements of its pagan precedents. Benslama and Meddeb anchor their ideas in European modes of thinking, whilst Meddeb also asserts that he reconnects with intellectual and Islamic heritages that have been disrupted by colonialism. As I suggest in Chapter 4, however, Meddeb’s work diverges both aesthetically and theologically from that of Sufi poets and philosophers from the past. Moreover, Benslama maintains that the theological aspects of Islamic heritage are irrecoverable after the changes brought about by colonization and urbanization in North Africa and the Middle East, whilst for Meddeb Islam is also in a state of decay, ready for an overhaul. Talking to JeanLuc Nancy on his radio programme Cultures d’Islam, Meddeb affirms that Islam is a waning religion at its ‘crépuscule’ [twilight]. On the programme, Meddeb invites Nancy to give his thoughts on the work of the medieval Muslim anthropologist



Ibn Khaldun. Nancy has little knowledge of the text prior to the programme, and Meddeb states that this is his attempt to ‘désenclaver’ [free] the text, and ‘le mettre dans les mains des experts’ [to put it into the hands of the experts].1 The implication here is disparaging to intellectual life in the Muslim world. Meddeb is actively inviting Nancy, a figure solidly from within French intellectual space, to interpret Islamic texts and motifs in place of any intellectual more closely connected to Islam. This is indicative of Meddeb’s desire for a paradigm shift when it comes to reassessing religion. A new intellectual framework is needed, and this will be brought in from elsewhere. Meddeb and Benslama thus locate their ideas within a context of change. Both writers consider the proliferation of literature in society as a herald of that change, as well as an instigator of it. Meddeb refers in particular to poetry and prose fiction, and produces examples of both of these, whilst Benslama associates his ideas more closely with the novel, discussing its subversive historic role within Europe in fragmenting myths of origin and ushering in the modern age. Such ideas are contested by Margaret Doody, who identifies and critiques similar tendencies to associate the novel in particular with wider changes in society, designating it a force that is both indicative of change and a further drive towards it. Doody suggests that novels are always placed in a position where they are believed to be ‘superseding something else’,2 and that ‘in twentieth-century criticism, the Novel is seen also not only as displacing, but replacing myth, or religious narrative, or rather religion’.3 For Doody, this is a highly problematical notion because: No novel is read as much as Scripture. To say this is not to state some kind of division between the ignorant and sophisticated. Indeed, reading Scriptures (of some kind) can enable the reading of novels (and vice versa). Some twentiethcentury readers and writers are atheists — and some are not.4

Doody points out the pragmatics of reading that undermine the idea of fictional narrative as a textual space that can supersede sacred scripture, based on the scale on which each is read. Moreover, Doody suggests that, far from engaging different aspects of a reader’s critical faculties, both texts may have something in common that ‘enables’ readers of one to read the other. This similarity is not one that necessitates ‘supersession’ of one by the other. Indeed, the Quran scholar Amin Islahi makes the case that it is not possible to undertake an exegetical study of the Quran without an in-depth awareness of the classical Arabic poetry that was commonly recited at its time of revelation. Commenting on the best way to understand Quranic Arabic, Islahi claims that: To appreciate such a language and to understand and grasp its intricacies and nuances is obviously not possible only through translations, books of exegesis, or lexicons. For this, one must develop a genuine literary taste for the language of the Qur’ān.5

For Islahi, literary resonances between the Quran and the poetry of its time, far from threatening the authenticity of the Quran, serve to enhance his understanding of its meanings. The dichotomy between literature and sacred scripture is thus not upheld within traditional theological circles.



Doody’s critique of the overemphasis on the novel as representative of the radical in times of change may be extended to Meddeb and Benslama here. The problem with the arguments put forward by Meddeb and Benslama is that their discussions often lack nuance, as I suggest in Chapter 4. Benslama, in his ref lections on the subversive potential of feminine sexuality and literary space in La Psychanalyse, fails to take into account differences between the Biblical and Quranic stories of Abraham and his wives, rendering much of what he says open to challenge. Moreover, both writers fail to draw any line between Islam and the political permutations of it loosely known as Islamism. Indeed, their work betrays a failure to see any division between the two. Meddeb makes clear that he takes issue with Islam as a way of life, as well as with its uses as a political ideology, whilst Benslama’s distinction between the two is poorly sustained, as I explain in the previous chapter, allowing for a slippage that transforms political critique into theological critique. Such a slippage is evoked in Boualem Sansal’s Le Village de l’allemand, which features the following discussion between confused suburban youths in Paris on the difference between Islam and Islamism: ‘Islamique ou Islamiste? Questionna Raymou | ‘C’est un détail, en s’en fout | Tu déconnes, c’est pas pareil, l’islam est la religion de mes parents, c’est la meilleure du monde!’ s’écria Momo’ [‘Islamic or Islamist?’ Asked Raymond | ‘Who cares? It’s the same difference. | ‘Bullshit. It’s not the same at all, my parents are Muslims, Islam is the greatest religion in the world,’ shouted Momo].6 They turn to a dictionary for help, only to find that the word ‘islamiste’ is not listed. They dismiss the idea that the dictionary might be old, and thus predate Islamism as a political phenomenon: ‘attends voir, ... il est de 90, les barbus, on les avait’ [No, it was published in 1990, we had the jihadists back then].7 The dictionary’s failure to list both terms separately and to establish a distinction between them suggests an institutionalized lack of comprehension of where any such distinction would lie. Moreover, the fact that it is the term ‘Islamism’ that is eclipsed from a French dictionary suggests a negation of what, according to Benslama, constitutes a part of the political legacy of colonialism. Momo’s interjection that Islam is ‘la meilleure du monde’ [the greatest religion in the world] indicates that he has a personal experience of it that is distinct from the suburban radical groups against which the youth in Sansal’s novel pit themselves, but that there is no official recognition of this. The line between the two is invisible, although the sense of distinction is palpable. The blurred boundary between the political and the theological is a widespread issue in North African writing, often causing writers to ref lect on the position of their work in relation to scripture itself, where the notion of Islamism as a political offshoot of the religion ought perhaps to be a buffer between the critical writer and sacred scripture, but often is not. The fact that an attack on Islamism leads to an attack on what are perceived to be the dogmatic elements of scripture suggests that writers who critique Islamism whilst also implicitly (or even explicitly) critiquing some of the core tenets of the Islamic faith have accepted the dogmatic Islamist readings. Even a writer like Meddeb, who is very conscious of the varied aesthetic nature of the Quran, calls for a discarding of elements of the Quranic text, as opposed to new readings of it as a whole. Such readings would lead to



re-evaluating the more dogmatic Islamist approach. Moreover, in seeking to open up the foundational moment of Islam in Aya dans les villes (as I discuss in Chapter 4), Meddeb merges the monotheistic message with precedent paganisms, but does not take into consideration the fact that Islam posits itself as a repeated moment, bringing back a recurring anterior notion of monotheism. Neither does Meddeb address the fact that the Quran is replete with dispersed echoes of anterior monotheistic narratives (referring to the stories of Moses and Jesus, amongst many others), and is thus a text that recontextualizes aspects of many others, which makes it structurally far from offering a sealed-off moment of origin, in the way Benslama outlines in La Psychanalyse. There is also an implied scriptural call for writers to position themselves in relation to scripture. Ben Jelloun addresses this in L’Islam expliqué aux enfants, where he attempts to undermine the sense of rift between literature and religion. In response to a Quranic condemnation of a group labelled ‘the poets’, he argues that the group of poets designated is very specific: ‘ “poètes”, dans le sens du verset visent ceux qui se payent de mots et n’agissent pas. Ce n’est pas ce qui caractérise les poètes en général’ [The term ‘poets’ in verse 224 is meant to apply to those who concern themselves only with words and not actions. It is not what defines poets in general].8 Ben Jelloun clearly does not place himself within that subversive category, suggesting that it is the particular agenda of the poets (who speak without taking action) that makes them objectionable, and not the fact of their writing poetry in itself. Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, on the other hand, embraces the notion that poetic writing belongs to a domain of ref lection as opposed to action, and is thus non-prescriptive and undogmatic, in opposition to monotheistic discourse: Dans notre tradition arabe, il y a des poètes qui ont réfuté même le message du prophète. On les croit orgueilleux, mais ce n’est pas vrai, c’est plutôt une confiance totale dans le verbe en tant que verbe, et c’est le refus de se domestiquer. Il y a le vrai poète. C’est quelqu’un qui ne prétend pas faire de son verbe quelque chose qui domestique les hommes et qui leur apprend à vivre, mais au contraire quelqu’un qui leur apporte une liberté, une liberté souvent gênante d’ailleurs. Je crois que le vrai message du poète c’est ça. Ce n’est pas le fait de dire aux gens, vous devez faire ceci, ou vous devez faire cela, c’est justement de briser tous les cadres qui ont été tracé pour qu’ils puissent regarder autour d’eux. [In our Arabic tradition, there are some poets who have refuted even the message of the Prophet. People believe them to be proud, but it is not true. It is a matter rather of total confidence in the word as word and the refusal to become domesticated. There is the true poet. He is someone who does not claim to make of his word something that domesticates men, and that teaches them to live, but on the contrary someone who brings them a freedom, a freedom often uncomfortable moreover. I believe that the true message of the poet lies in this. It is not the fact of saying to the people that you must do this or you must do that; it is precisely to break all frames that have been placed around them so that they might bounce back.]9

Yacine’s suggestion that ‘il y a des poètes’ [there are some poets] as opposed to a generic use of ‘le poète’ [the poet] once again attributes the subversive potential of



poetry to a particular agenda, not to poetry itself. The passage slips into a more reductive implied dichotomy between the poetic and the prophetic, however, upheld by his reference to ‘le vrai message du poète’ [the true message of the poet], which opposes itself to ‘le message du prophète’ [the message of the prophet] mentioned earlier on in the passage. The word ‘vrai’ [true] is used twice in connection with the poet and poetry, and seems a transposition of the term from religious discourse, which often lays claim to truth, suggesting that poetry can usurp the position of religion. The idea that poetry can ‘briser tous les cadres’ [break all frames], in opposition to an implied religious discourse that dictates ‘vous devez faire ceci, ou vous devez faire cela’ [you must do this or you must do that], does not take into account the verses in the Quran that also call for a rupture in thought processes and for ref lection as opposed to dictating action. As I discuss in Chapter 4, the intertwining of verses that invite ref lection and looking around at the world with more legalistic injunctions necessitates a very careful reading of scripture, where legalistic verses cannot be taken as pure dogma, and where ref lection and meditation cannot be isolated from action. Kateb’s comment betrays a reductive and non-nuanced understanding of the processes of Quranic scripture. His mimicking of ‘vous devez faire ceci, ou vous devez faire cela’ is more of an echo of a political dogmatic approach than it is of scripture itself. This reductive understanding of the workings of sacred scripture means that there will inevitably be a failure to position literary and poetic discourse in relation to it accurately. John Erickson insists that it is an ‘oversimplification’10 to see the work of writers who revisit Islam with a spirit of independence as an ‘unqualified refutation of the “message of the Prophet.” ’.11 He argues that ‘far from all being set on rejecting Islam and Muhammad, most reject only the dictates imposed by Islamic extremists’.12 I have tried to convey the variety of ways in which this is done by writers responding to an array of political situations and challenges. The suggestion that literature challenges scripture even when it does not seek to, by mere virtue of its being literature, is thus unsustainable. What it can do, as I have demonstrated throughout this study, is engage with aspects of religious discourse or notions of the divine in very personalized ways, exploring how sacred narrative merges with individual experience, and challenging the radical voices that have an alienating effect on many who might wish to engage with sacred scripture on different terms. Notes to the Conclusion 1. Meddeb, Cultures d’islam, first broadcast on ‘France Inter’ on 19 March 2006. 2. Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel (London: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 2. 3. Ibid., p. 3. 4. Ibid. 5. Amin Ihsan Islahi, Pondering Over the Qur’ān, i, trans. by Mohammad Saleem Kayani (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2006), p. 26. 6. Boualem Sansal, Le Village de l’allemand: ou le journal des frères Schiller (Paris: Gallimard, 2008), p. 129/An Unfinished Business, trans. by Frank Wynne (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), p. 119. 7. Ibid., p. 129/p. 119. 8. Tahar Ben Jelloun, L’Islam expliqué aux enfants (Paris: Seuil, 2002), p. 74)/Islam Explained, trans. by Philip Franklin (New York: New Press, 2004), pp. 62–63.



9. Kateb Yacine, ‘Le Rôle de l’écrivain dans un état socialiste’, in Anthologie des écrivains maghrébins d’expression française, ed. by Albert Memmi (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1964), p. 180, cited in translation in John Erickson, Islam and Postcolonial Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 2. 10. Erickson, Islam and Postcolonial Narrative, p. 2. 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid.

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Nerval, Gérard de, Les Filles du feu/Les Chimères: Sonnets manuscrits (Paris: Flammarion, 1994) —— Select Writings, trans. by Richard Stebarth (London: Penguin, 1999) Neggaz, Soumaya, Amin Maalouf: le voyage initiatique dans ‘Léon l’Africain’, ‘Samarcande’ et ‘Le Rocher de Tanios’ (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005) Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 2003) Perec, Georges, La Disparition (Paris: Denoël, 1969)//A Void, trans. by Gilbert Adair (London: Vintage, 2008) —— Espèces d’espaces (Paris: Galilée, 1985) —— L.G.: Une aventure des années soixante (Paris: Seuil, 1992) —— Penser/classer (Paris: Hachette, 1985)/Thoughts of Sorts, trans. by David Bellos (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011) Rahner, Karl, ed., The Encyclopedia of Theology (London: Burns and Oats, 1975) Ramadan, Tariq, ‘Reading the Koran’, The New York Times, 6 January 2008, [accessed 16/October 2013] Riffaterre, Michael, ‘On the Complementarity of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies’, in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, ed. by Charles Bernheimer (London and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 66–76 Robbins, Bruce, ‘Is Literature a Secular Concept? Three Earthquakes’, Modern Language Quarterly, 72 (2011), 293–317 Roberts, Hugh, The Battlefield Algeria 1988–2002: Studies in a Broken Polity (London and New York: Verso, 2003) Robinson, Neal, Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text (London: SCM Press, 2003) Rogerson, Barnaby, The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography (London: Abacus, 2003) Rushdie, Salman, Imaginary Homelands (London: Penguin, 1992) Said, Edward, The World, the Text, the Critic (London: Faber, 1984) Sansal, Boualem, Le Village de l’allemand: ou le journal des frères Schiller (Paris: Gallimard, 2008)/An Unfinished Business, trans. by Frank Wynne (London: Bloomsbury, 2010) Scharfman, Ronnie, ‘Nomadism and Transcultural Writing in the Work of Abdelwahab Meddeb’, L’Esprit Créateur, 41 (2001), 105–13 Silverman, Max, ‘Interconnected Histories: Holocaust and Empire in the Cultural Imaginary’, French Studies, 62 (2008), 417–28 Slyomovics, Susan, ‘Hassiba Ben Bouali, If You could See Our Algeria! Women and Public Space in Algeria’, Middle East Report, 192 (1995), 8–13 Spivak, Gayatri, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–316 Watkin, Christopher, Difficult Atheism: Post-theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011) Yacine, Kateb, Nedjma (Paris: Seuil, 1956) —— ‘Le Rôle de l’écrivain dans un état socialiste’, in Anthologie des écrivains maghrébins d’expression française, ed. by Albert Memmi (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1964), pp. 176–80

Filmography The Battle of Algiers, dir. by Gillo Pontecorvo (Tartan Video, 1993) Femmes d’islam, dir. by Yamina Benguigui (MK2 Editions, 2004) Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du coran, dir. By François Dupeyron (ARP Sélection, 2003)

INDEX ❖ Abdedi, Mehdi 88, 89–92 Abraham 96, 125 Akram, Mohammad 95 al-Ghazali 92 Al Hallâj 39, 100 Al Tabari 109 Arab Spring 9

La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua 66 Nulle Part dans la maison de mon père 66–67, 112 La Soif 56 Vaste est la Prison 66, 67 Doody, Margaret 124 Dupeyron, François, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du coran 39

Bachi, Salim, Le Silence de Mahomet 118 Bahri, Deepika 3 Bakhtinian 21 Barakat, Halim 32 Bataille, Georges 26, 28, 41 Benguigui, Yamina, Femmes d’Islam 118 Ben Jelloun, Tahar 8, 9, 31–36, 111 L’Enfant de sable 34–35, 38–48, 54 L’Islam expliqué aux enfants 33, 125 La Nuit Sacré 33 Benslama, Fethi 6–7, 117, 123, 124 La Psychanalyse à l’épreuve de l’Islam 10, 88, 93–100, 125 Une Fiction troublante 1, 99–100 Béhar, Stella 75 Bible 37, 87 Old Testament 96 Blanchot, Maurice 9, 31, 36–38, 39, 40, 53, 87 La Communauté introuable 82 Bloom, Harold 48–49 Bongie, Chris 3 Boudjedra, Rachid, La Répudiation 96 Bourget, Carine 33–34 Bowie, Malcolm 74 Burgelin, Claude 58

Erickson, John 127 Fischer, Michael 88, 89–92 Freud, Sigmund 7, 96 Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) 58, 59, 94, 109 Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) 66, 109 Gschwandtner, Christina 61 Haikal, Muhammad 2 Heidegger, Martin, 62 Hiddleston, Jane 6, 58, 66 Harrison, Nicholas 3, 5, 80, 81 Holocaust 8 Hourani, Albert 90–91 Ibn Arabi 39, 100, 106–07 Ibn Taymiyyah 18 Islahi, Amin 124 Islamist 58, 59, 94–95, 110, 118, 125 James, Allison 74 James, Ian 7–8 Janicaud, Dominique 7 Kant, Emmanuel 28

Chrétien, Jean-Louis 8 Chraibi, Driss 5 Christ 63, 64 Clark, Timothy 68 Corredor, Eva 35 Delcroix, Eugène 110 Derrida, Jacques 7, 8, 67, 68 Djebar, Assia 8, 57, 104 L’Amour, La Fantasia 5–6, 66, 114 La Disparition de la langue française 10, 57, 58, 76–82 La Femme sans sépulture 66 Femmes d’Alger dans leur apartement 66, 110 Loin de Médine 10, 88, 95, 109–17, 118

Lang, George, 92 Libertson, Joseph 26, 28 Maalouf, Amin 8, 9, 31–36 Les Croisades vues par les Arabes 34 Les Identités meurtrières 34 Le Périple de Baldassare 31, 38 Mahfouz, Naghib 2 Mallarmé, Stéphane 36, 53, 74 Marion, Jean-Luc 10, 57, 59–65, 66, 68, 71, 76, 87, 104 Marrouchi, Mustapha 45 Mawhinney, Heather 72, 73



Meddeb, Abdelwahab 6–7, 8, 9, 17–20, 26, 31, 39, 57, 88, 95, 113, 117, 123–24 Aya dans les villes 10, 88, 100–08, 117 Cultures d’islam 123 Face à l’islam 101 La Maladie de l’islam 18, 100–01 Phantasia 26, 107 Talismano 9, 13, 20–27, 102 Mernissi, Fatima 111 Mortimer, Robert 59 Moses 96 Munson Jr, Henry 32 Mu’tazila 18 Myth 6, 20 Nancy, Jean-Luc 7, 14–15, 31, 53, 57, 87, 124 L’Intrus 9, 13, 15–17, 21, 22, 27 Un Jour, les dieux se retirent... 62 Nietzsche, Friedrich 63 The Gay Science 59–60 Thus Spoke Zarathustra 59–60 Nerval, Gérard de Les Chimères 60 Paganism 19 Paul, Jean Siebenkäs 60 Pearson, Roger 74 Perec, Georges 8, 10 La Disparition 57, 58, 72–76, 77 Les Lignes Générales 69 Penser/Classer 70–71 Prophet Muhammad 89–92, 105, 112

Quran 1, 3, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26, 27, 33, 39, 42, 78, 88, 89–92, 96, 99, 102, 103, 104, 119, 124, 125 Ramadan, Tariq 6, 27 Riffaterre, Michael 3 Robbins, Bruce 4, 6 Roberts, Hugh 95 Rogerson, Baranaby 119 Rorty, Richard 4 Rumi 112 Rushdie, Salman: Imaginary Homelands 1, 4 The Satanic Verses 6, 99–100 Said, Edward 7 Sansal, Boualem, Le Village de l’allemand: ou le journal des frères Schiller 125 Sardar, Ziauddin 117 Sharia 59, 95 Slyomovics, Susan 109 Sufi: tradition 18, 39, 92, 101, 107 poetry 24, 80, 106, 107, 108, 112, 123 Svevo, Italo 69 Torah 37 Wahabi 18 Watkin, Christopher 8 Yacine, Kateb 126