The Sahara is not a Boundary

Ziad Bentahar is an assistant professor of French and Arabic at Towson University in the United States. He grew up in Morocco, where his interest in the country’s competing relationships to “the Arab world” and to rest of the continent began. His recent scholarship looks at reasons why the identities of “Arab” and “African” seem, from our contemporary vantage point, so distinct, as though a writer or scholar must choose one or the other. Here, he talks with Marcia Lynx Qualey about history’s shifting boundaries and different ways of imagining connections between African literatures.

Marcia Lynx Qualey: Can you talk a bit about the longstanding literary and learning connections that bridged the Sahara, for instance the primacy of Timbuktu as a site of learning, the movement between the Kingdom of Ghana and the Maghreb, between Sudan and Egypt, and other pathways?

Ziad Bentahar: Certainly, the connections are longstanding. Not just in terms of literature and education, but in all related realms of cultural expression: language, religion, arts, education, economy, architecture, and so on. The way that we divide the world geographically, and the regional borders that we take for granted today are not absolute. One obvious example is the question of where Europe ends and Africa begins. There was a time when it was said that Africa began at the Pyrenees (meaning Spain was really not European – too Moorish, perhaps?). Now, it would seem that, for some, Africa really begins at the Atlas Mountains, leaving North Africa in limbo.

At different times, Timbuktu, Kairouan and Granada, might have been seen as part of the same cultural space. When one looks at a current map and sees Spain and Morocco in different colours, or Algeria and Mali, Sudan and Egypt, or even Yemen and Ethiopia, it is easy to forget that these national borders are relatively new. The Sahara Desert, the Mediterranean Sea, or even the Red Sea, are not necessarily boundaries, they have rather been highways for the exchange of people and ideas through history.

In the case of North Africa, the connections with the rest of the continent have mainly (although not exclusively) centred on education, economy and religion.

You mentioned Timbuktu as a site of learning. It is very tempting to visualise a romantic picture of a past that involved student-exchange programmes between Timbuktu and the al-Qarawiyyin University in Fes. Certainly, scholars from either side of the Sahara – and within the Sahara – corresponded widely to exchange opinions on religious matters.

This article first appeared in print in Muzmin, an Arab edition of the Chronic (July 2015).

As far as economy goes, historians say that Mediterranean markets emerged with the Carthaginian Empire in the ninth century BCE, fostering the growth of trans-Saharan commerce and trade routes. With the arrival of Islam, human exchanges through north-south trade and commerce in Africa undoubtedly increased, both in Western Africa and along the Eastern coast of the continent. Actually, at times the human exchange was because humans were what was being traded.

Finally, it is important to remember the role of pilgrimage in these exchanges. The first thing that comes to mind is the infamous story of Malian emperor Mansa Musa’s hajj in the fourteenth century, and the price of gold in Cairo dropping significantly for a while after he stopped in Egypt on his way to Mecca, because he carried with him (and left behind) so much of the precious metal. It is easy to imagine that this sparked some interest in further southern exploration among North African rulers, whether it is in the empires of Mali, Ghana, or the Songhay that Morocco conquered in the sixteenth century.

These historical sketches validate, in a way, the idea that the Sahara is not a boundary. But the language professor in me cannot help but think of the kinds of writing that people used within this space, for things like the correspondence of scholars or ambassadors, drawing up contracts, planning a project, recording a travel account, or even for entertainment. Those are all part of the literary connections bridging the Sahara, and we should absolutely add to it non-written forms of literary expression, like music, poetry, and so on.

MLQ: Part of the disruption of ties between what we now call North and sub-Saharan Africa seems to be how we construct the “beginnings” of literatures here based on Western models. You point to Négritude poets as being connected to a “beginning” of African literatures in the 1930s, and Arabic fiction is often seen as starting in 1913 with Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s novel Zaynab. Both of these have to do with re-imagining national identity in a colonial border context. Does it change the disruption at all if we imagine different “beginnings” for African literatures? 

ZB: It is important to keep in mind that this has little to do with literature itself, in a vacuum, but rather to do with literature studies as a discipline. When I mentioned Négritude in my article, I did not mean that it was a literary beginning, but that it was a new theoretical beginning. In other words, it is not so much a literary issue as it is one of categorisations of fields of study.

We can certainly find ties if we imagine “new beginnings”, as you put it, no matter where we choose to find these beginnings. As a matter of fact, we can also find ties in the 20th century, or now as well. Even the Négritude poets have generally tended more to inclusion than exclusion.

The point is, how do we study, categorise and analyse literatures?

Une si longue lettre Mariama Bâ Heinmann, 1981; Palace Walk Naguib Mahfouz Anchor (reissue), 2011; God’s Bits of Wood Ousmane Sembène Heinmann, 1970; Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe Heinmann, 1958

Une si longue lettre Mariama Bâ Heinmann, 1981; Palace Walk Naguib Mahfouz Anchor (reissue), 2011; God’s Bits of Wood Ousmane Sembène Heinmann, 1970; Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe Heinmann, 1958

MLQ: Can you discuss Heinemann’s “missionary” role of opening up new markets for British books? They were, in part, publishing African writers in order to sell books to African readers.

ZB: Sometimes there are very pragmatic, non-literary factors to these things. When discussing this topic, one can very easily get the impression that all these boundaries and classifications are the result of bad will or ignorance. It is very tempting to think that there is a conspiracy separating North and sub-Saharan African literatures that needs to be brought to light, or that the ties linking literatures from different parts of Africa are simply not known, and it is only a matter of telling people about them. That is not what I hope to convey at all. Oftentimes, superstructures of power and knowledge manifest themselves in very pragmatic ways, like book markets and publishing industries, for example. There are also illiteracy rates, publishing rights, and other very down-to-earth reasons why some literatures are published where they are, and classified as they are.

MLQ: Is there something to be gained from reading Ibrahim al-Koni in Senegal, or Ousmane Sembène in Libya? Or both together somewhere else?

ZB: Absolutely! When I first became interested in African literature, I was an undergraduate in an English department in Morocco, and a Chinua Achebe novel made a tremendous impression on me because it helped me understand myself and my own society. I remember thinking: if you just replace Igbo names with Arabic names, you could swear this was taking place in Morocco. This also applies to Senegalese works like Mariama Bâ’s novel Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter) or Ousmane Sembène’s films. I can easily see how Libyan students could gain insights into their own selves and societies by reading Nigerian literature, or Congolese students reading Algerian literature. That being said, I would be happy if Ibrahim al-Koni was read a bit more in Libya to begin with, or in other Arabic-speaking countries, for that matter.

MLQ: Do you think 1967, and North African writers’ re-focusing on Palestine, was an important turning point in the disintegration of literary ties between North and sub-Saharan Africas? Or were the links between these two (imagined) regions already so weak that anything might have effected this disruption?

ZB: I am inclined to think that the issue is that these regions are imagined, as you say, rather than it being a matter of ties being weak or strong. It is very problematic (albeit very tempting) to think of these spaces – African, Arab, Islamic, francophone – as monolithic. But the point is that they are diverse, and, ultimately, artificial.

When we talk about there being no boundary between North and sub-Saharan Africa, how far south are we really prepared to go? Should Moroccan literature necessarily be classified alongside South African literature? When we were talking about Timbuktu earlier, it seemed logical to visualise a broader Islamic northern Africa. Does it mean we should simply move the Saharan boundary a bit south to include only those countries with a significant Muslim presence? When we spoke of French being a language in common between the Maghreb and West Africa, does it imply that the boundary today should reflect colonially inherited languages, following a line along the eastern borders of Tunisia, southern Algeria, and Niger, for example?

Any classification, ultimately, is inadequate. The point is to not take these classifications for granted, and question them. Because they are inadequate and vague, however, , they are also flexible. So it is conceivable for North Africans to call themselves Africans when they are fighting the same colonial empire as other African countries, then call themselves Arab when pan Arabism is in the air, then African again when it is convenient or back in fashion. I think politics play a role in this, whether it is the Cold War, oil crises in the 1970s, or the aftermath of September 11. It does seem awfully convenient to be able to say, “I’m African, not Arab, I have nothing to do with Iraq, so don’t bomb me please”, but it is only possible because “African” and “Arab” are vague, artificial, and therefore flexible terms. “Europe” is as well. So is “the West,” which, today, as far as I understand, does not include Morocco, a country whose very name means “the Occident” in Arabic, and yet was the epitome of what we think of as Western civilisation six centuries ago.

What I find interesting is that “Arab” and “African”, more often than not, are considered mutually exclusive, and a liminal space like North Africa tends to be the one or the other at any given time, and rarely both at once.

MLQ: Are there translations of big authors like Naguib Mahfouz and Tayeb Salih into other non-European African languages: Oromo, Swahili, Hausa, Amharic? 

ZB: I should hope so. I seem to recall seeing a Mahfouz novel in Swahili once.

MLQ: In the study of African literature, is there any special status for Tamazight/Berber writers, who can’t really be called “Middle Eastern”?

ZB: Why could they not be Middle Eastern? The problem there is that these labels, as artificial as they might be, are very powerful in shaping the way we view the world, and unfortunately they are also mutually exclusive. Tamazight is not considered a Middle Eastern language, but why not? What about Coptic? Or the languages you just mentioned? I think you just hit the nail on the head: the point of literature is to question these things, like identity, and what it means to belong to a region, a country, a continent, a society, a civilisation, a period; for example, by getting us to ask: is Tamazight Middle Eastern, and what does it imply about the very meaning of “Middle Eastern?”

The answer to your question is no, there is no substantial status for Tamazight, to my great chagrin. Of course there are scholars who study Tamazight-related things, I am not saying no one does. In fact, I commend those few scholars who do. But Tamazight literatures and cultures are still cruelly understudied, given the potential. I do not know Tamazight myself, otherwise it would likely have taken a larger role in my own research. I think the main reasons for this lack of interest in Tamazight fall more into the category of pragmatic things I was referring to before, where to publish these literatures, who is going to read them? and so on, rather than intrinsically literary factors. Thankfully, the internet has helped with the dissemination of cultural production in Tamazight.

The future of Tamazight literature as a discipline, which I very much hope takes off very soon, is likely to come from Europe, if only because of significant Amazigh communities in such places as France or the Netherlands, and it is there that Tamazight literatures and cultures are most likely to become more widely studied. Teaching Tamazight in a North American university would not hurt, however, and I encourage any of your readers who have an idea on how to start such a programme to let me know if I can help them in any way.

MLQ: At PEN’s May festival in New York, there is a focus on “Africa”. As you would expect, North Africa is marginal, with just one off-site event bringing in Moroccan literature, and at least one of the organisers didn’t even know of the event. Indeed, the organisers didn’t seem to find North Africa’s marginalisation from the discussion at all troubling. Should they? 

ZB: Of course it is troubling because this marginalisation questions the very meaning of Africa. Not to mention that North Africa suffers from a double marginalisation, so to speak, since it has tended to not be central in “Arab” literature either. Because it is between two categories – Arab and African – it ends up being marginal in both.

But I would like to point out that North Africa is not necessarily an innocent victim in this scenario. If North Africa is only African when it is convenient, without investing itself in an African space and an African identity, it is bound to not hold a central place in the discussion. This applies to literature. Many North African authors and literary scholars do not consider themselves African. Those who do are a minority.

MLQ: I have got feedback, for instance, from sub-Saharan writers who say, “The Arabs already have their festivals and prizes, don’t come barging into ours.” Indeed, there seems to be a framework of limited resources and a sense of competition for these.

ZB: I, too, have had my share of encounters with authors and scholars, both from North and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as from elsewhere, who consider the two to be separate. But there was a time when that was the only attitude I encountered. I do feel that it has changed in recent years, slowly but surely.  I suppose that time will tell whether it is durable change, or negligible fluctuations in an inevitable overarching drift between North Africa and the rest of the continent.

What I find problematic is that these exclusionary discourses are rarely based on any clearly articulated ideology.

Certainly the framework that you refer to is insufficient. If someone thinks that North African literature should not be included with Africa because Arabic literature has its own festivals and prizes, fair enough. But this strikes me as missing the broader question of why are “Arab” and “African” considered mutually exclusive, and what does it reveal about the very meaning of “African” and “Arab”? I think that literature and culture are ideally positioned to raise these important questions and eventually direct us towards answers.

Meanwhile, I’d like to remind sceptics that no one seems to question North Africa’s place in Africa during the Africa Cup of Nations. Maybe I should research football rather than literature.

MLQ: You don’t mention the mutual racisms that compound this severing of ties. For instance, in an issue of African Writing to which I contributed, and wherein Elliott Colla translated a story by Ibrahim al-Koni, there was a quite offensive caricature of an Arab that ran right alongside al-Koni’s story. And anti-black racism among Arabs surely needs little detailing. Among writers I have found a more open and anti-racist atmosphere, but to what extent do you think these figure in?

ZB: I think that racism is fundamental in this separation. The difficulty in addressing it (and I do address it in my research, although, I admit, not yet satisfactorily) is that it is not clearly defined in this context. If it were more clearly articulated, it would be easier to attack it. But race is complicated, and, when it comes to North Africa, it is particularly ambiguous. This makes it difficult to talk about race and racism without confirming and validating racist paradigms, even when one does not adhere to them, or if they are inadequate when it comes to the specific case of North Africa. I am also unclear on whether this racism is the cause of the separation or its consequence, although I suspect the answer is both the cause and consequence, like a vicious circle.

The problem is also not at the level of the individual only, it is in larger structures. The fact that you generally find a more open and anti-racist atmosphere among writers – which has been my experience as well – is consoling, but does not mean much, unfortunately. Individuals are not necessarily racist, or aware of perpetuating and/or benefiting from racism. The story of the caricature that you mention is an example of that. Similar acts of racism are normalised, and many of their perpetrators would be shocked and surprised if you drew attention to the racism in their attitudes.

The optimist in me still believes that literature can open minds. After reading Elliott Colla’s translation, one may find the caricature beside it suddenly problematic, and engage with it more critically.

muzmin_coverresizedThe Arabic version of this article features in the June 2015 issue of Chronic, an edition in which we depart from and contest crude fictions about the Sahara as a boundary between “Arab” and “Black” Africa. Designed in collaboration with Studio Safar in Beirut, this issue is published in its entirety in Arabic as Muzmin.

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