- Which Qalam for Algeria? Colonialism, Liberation, and Language in Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia and Mustaghānimī’s Dhākirat al-Jasad
When the Algerian novelist Aḥlām Mustaghānimī accepted the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in Cairo in 1998, she closed her address with nothing less than a declaration of war:
My thanks go also to the panel of judges, one by one, for honouring me, as through their tribute to me they offer moral support to Algerian writers writing in Arabic who confront unarmed the onslaughts of Francophony and its diverse temptations, while they stand patriotically against the dubious and divisive tendencies to which Algeria is exposed.
Glory to our beautiful language! And long life and best wishes for our mentor and beloved Naguib Mahfouz. 1
At first blush, Mustaghānimī may not seem so bellicose. After all, she describes Algeria’s arabophone writers as “unarmed” victims of the “onslaughts” of francophonie; war is declared on her and on writers like her, not the other way around. She and her comrades-in-disarmament do nothing but write. And yet, I insist, these are fighting words. For by celebrating Arabic and inscribing herself into a literary genealogy in which the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz—who insisted that modern standard Arabic was the only “proper” language for the Arabic novel—figures prominently as a mentor-ancestor, Mustaghānimī dared to uphold the “innocence” of modern standard Arabic in Algeria, and thus its legitimacy (if not primacy) as a language of Algerian literary expression. Moreover, she did so at a time when [End Page 467] other Algerian writers not only questioned the capacity of that language to reflect Algerian social reality and to speak to diverse Algerian publics, but also charged the spirit of Arabization with waging war on Algeria’s francophonie. Brutal violence swept the country in the early 1990s after the secular Front de Libération Nationale (FLN)-dominated government, defeated in the 1991 Algerian elections by the Islamist party Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), canceled those elections and set out to repress the rising Islamist tendency. By 1995, three years before Mustaghānimī accepted the Mahfouz Medal—awarded annually by the American University in Cairo Press for the best recent novel in Arabic—ensuing Islamist attacks had claimed the lives of over sixty of Algeria’s writers, artists, and intellectuals for the “crime” of writing and performing in French, in Tamazight (“Berber”), or even in dialectal Algerian Arabic. Some Islamists saw these languages as “threats” to modern standard Arabic, a language they privileged both as a living link to the classical Arabic of the Qur’ān and as a symbolic opposition to the monopoly of francophone FLN elites on Algerian political and cultural capital. Of course, religiopolitical and politicolinguistic divisions between the FIS and the FLN are not at all so neat. Hafid Gafaïti has argued that shared tendencies of Arabization and Islamization belie any facile opposition between the FLN-dominated government and the FIS. 2 Within a decade of Algerian independence, Rachida Yacine has shown, the secular nationalist state decreed and began to enforce modern standard Arabic as the exclusive language of the decolonized nation, and Islam as its exclusive religion. 3 More paradoxical still, as Gafaïti emphasizes, the politics of both the FLN and the FIS long have been “contaminated” by the stubborn persistence of francophonie in Algerian life.
Recognizing, perhaps, the mutual implication of seemingly opposed political and linguistic forces in post-independence Algeria, Mustaghānimī insists on the “innocence” of modern standard Arabic, refuses (as Hannah Arendt did of German) to believe Arabic itself a language gone mad. Elsewhere in her prize acceptance speech, she refuses to oppose Algerians who write in Arabic to their felled francophone and Tamazight-speaking compatriots. Instead, she aligns them intimately. Indeed, before she thanks the Mahfouz prize committee for honoring her, she thanks both oppressive Arab states (tacitly indicting Algeria’s FLN-led government) and non-state “murderers and assassins” (tacitly indicting the FIS) for conferring an even greater honor upon her and other writers: “the more they take us by surprise with their knives,” she says, “the...