- Interview with Mahmud al-Mas'adi
Mahmud al-Mas'adi (1911–2004) was a writer, anti-colonial militant and politician from Tunisia. He is known in the Arab world for a particular style of writing and an attempt at linking modern Arabic fiction to its past heritage through language and narrative style. He initiated one of the earliest efforts to engage Sufism in Arabic fiction. Most of his creative writings were drafted in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His books include al-Sudd (The Dam), a play published in 1955 and translated into French, and the two long narratives, Haddatha Abu Hurayra qal. . . (Abu Hurayra Told Us. . . ), which was partially serialized in 1944 and published in full in 1974 and translated into Spanish, and Mawlid al-Nisyan (The Genesis of Oblivion), serialized in 1945 and published in full in 1974, and subsequently translated into French and Dutch. In addition, he has written critical studies on rhythm in Arabic literature in French and in Arabic as well as numerous articles and lectures. One of UNESCO's representative authors, Al-Mas'adi was the architect of the modern educational system in Tunisia and a key figure in the country's cultural policy after independence in 1956.
M.–S. Omri: May I begin by reading to you a short passage from an interview you have given to the journal al-Nadwa, which appeared in 1956. You seem to remember the text. I quote:
Question: Which writers, ancient and modern, do you prefer?
Answer: Among the old, Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani; Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi; Abu al-'Ala' al-Ma'arri, from Arabic; Umar al-Khayyam, from Persian; Aeschylus and Euripides, from the Greeks; Shakespeare, from the English and Racine from the French. Among the modern, there are many writers: the Norwegian Ibsen; the Russian Dostoevsky; the Germans Nietzsche and Goethe; the French Valéry, Giraudoux, St. Exupéry and Malraux and the Arabs al-Shabbi and some of Tawfiq al-Hakim's work, etc.1 [End Page 435]
Mahmud Al-Mas'Adi: Yes, I remember the passage. What I will add is the following. I just said that the influences were as diverse as possible. Some of the things that marked me will surprise you. You will be surprised to know that among the first things which influenced me was the rhythm of Koranic recitation when I was a child in the Kuttab. There was also the weekly repetition from the mouth of the Imam during the Friday prayer when he cited the Prophet's hadiths, saying 'haddatha Abu Hurayra qal. . . There were also the numerous readings of French authors which I did when I was in school, from Ronsard, Montaigne, Racine, Corneille, Molière all the way to the writers of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries among the big names in French literature. There were also writers who belong to other European cultures in other languages whom I read in French translation because I do not know the other languages. You find their names among those listed.
I mentioned Dostoevsky. But there is also Rimbaud among those I did not mention and Gogol and Tolstoy. It is not possible to list all those I have read or those who marked me. All these great writers, poets and thinkers have enriched my thinking and my inner life, not only with their philosophical ideas, but also with their aesthetic and moral contributions. It is all this, that is, all these cultures with their various representatives, old and new, Western and Eastern – because I have not mentioned the East nor what I have been able to know of Hindu culture and Hindu thought; nor did I mention what the Arab and Islamic cultures have offered me.
I did not mention what my French teachers in secondary education and the Arabists and Islamicists at the university have taught me. They have enriched my inner life thanks to the knowledge – how shall I call it? – the intimate knowledge of great geniuses of French literature and of the Arab-Islamic culture that they made possible for me to acquire. It was with admirable Islamicists like Louis Massignon that I was able...