- Native Tongue, Stranger Talk: The Arabic and French Literary Landscapes of Lebanon by Michelle Hartman
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014
368 pages. isbn 9780815633563
In her preface, Hartman poses three critical questions that underline the inherent tension of writing Lebanese literature in French: “Can a work written in a colonial language like French express the everyday realities lived in Arabic in Lebanon? Can this be done in a way that does not simply ‘spice up’ the text and make a French novel seem more exotic? How can a French text speak Arabic?” (ix–x). These questions inform Hartman’s analysis as she examines eight novels written in French by Lebanese women writers from 1933 to 2003. This seventy-year period witnessed different evolutions of the Lebanese novel at critical moments in the history of modern Lebanon, including French colonialism, Lebanese independence, a fifteen-year civil war, and the ongoing postwar nation building. In this regard Hartman’s analysis of the literary landscape is particularly attentive to the political and historical context of Lebanon. It also provides a localized understanding of Lebanese literature and its encounters with French beyond national and colonial geographies. This trajectory is exemplified in Hartman’s review of colonial French-language education during the mandate and the emergence of authors of Francophone novels, “who are for the most part members of the Lebanese elite and educated middle classes who moved in an actively polyglot world” (39), and her reference to the effects of global French and the continuous deep entanglement of France with Lebanon throughout the postwar period through active engagement with cultural centers, funding of festivals, support of the arts, and Beirut’s hosting of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie summit in 2002, which underlines Beirut’s “identification as one of the global locations where France’s colonial linguistic policies took hold and had a deep effect” (233).
Adopting an anticolonial framework that challenges both the universality of French and a nationalist reading of Frenchness in Lebanese novels, Hartman employs a triangular [End Page 346] critical paradigm that engages the intersection of world literature, novelization, and Mikhail Bakhtin’s notions of polyglossia and polyphony. Hartman has successfully illustrated the aptness of this complex paradigm through careful close reading of the politics of using Arabic in these novels. Her detailed analysis of how polyglossia and polyphony work in the text reveal the critical role Arabic plays in the narrative: Arabic has a political function that goes beyond simply “spicing up” the text or making French novels exotic. Hartman clearly demonstrates how Lebanese women writers use Arabic in their French novels purposefully to mark different parts of speech genre that are crucial for the narrative structure. With thoughtful reading of each novel against its own historical and political context, Hartman also analyzes the moments when polyglossia of Arabic and French reflect social commentary on ethnicity, gender, religion, and class dynamics in Lebanon.
In fact, Hartman’s reading practices and her examination of how Arabic works in the novels, including its “transability” and/or appearance in the footnotes, offers new categorical mapping of the Lebanese French novel. In her reading of Amy Kher’s Salma et son village (Salma and Her Village, 1933), for example, Hartman brings attention to how Kher inscribes Arabic in French through a direct translation of “untranslatable” expressions and local proverbs, thus creating a form of “relexification” (75) that highlights interruptions in the narrative and dichotomies of insider-outsider. This reading emphasizes the political and historical context of the novel, which was written in the 1930s, when “on the agenda were both desire to preserve some elements of traditional society and also a push to improve others—such as the role of women” (79). It also transcends the generic identification of the novel as ethnographic.
Perhaps the strongest articulation of a feminist reading of the Lebanese French novel occurs in part 2, “Arabic as Feminist Punctuation.” Here, Hartman focuses on Lebanese women novelists’ extensive use of polyglossia during the civil war: Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Le fils empaillé (The Son Stuffed with Straw...