In November 2013, in an ancient salon in the heart of the medina of Tunis, her Excellency, Madame Laura Baeza, convened what she boldly labeled even then, the FIRST meeting of Euro-Magreb writers: “Les Identités Plurielles” Our intense multilingual deliberations on language and literature as un pont entre les cultures were at one point on the final morning completely obliterated by the thunder of rain on the roof over our heads.
Madame Baeza’s vision, from the beginning, included PEN International, for which we thank her. The Maghreb and the Middle East have been difficult places for PEN International to become established, and not only because the writers in this part of the world face formidable freedom of expression challenges. In some countries, writers are simply unable, because of their circumstances, to even contemplate the possibility of something as public as a PEN Centre. But the shadow of old moribund centres looms over the revival and/or creation of PEN centres; PEN has been in existence since 1921, defending freedom of expression and literature, and it sometimes seems, in some parts of the world that PEN itself is a country of old men. But PEN is changing. Many PEN centres, like the Belgian and Austrian centres represented here today by their presidents, are being transformed by two important groups—young writers, and writers in exile, many of whom are refugees. PEN fights for the rights of more than 900 writers imprisoned or directly threatened every year, but we also campaign against insidious trends like impunity, in countries as different as Mexico and Bangladesh, challenges discrimination against LGBTQI community on every continent, and champions languages under threat.
In November 2014, Her Excellency brought us together again, first in the somewhat frayed splendor of a hotel just outside the medina, and then in the ancient, truly splendid city of Kairouan, to explore the subject of Literature and Engagement, first amongst ourselves, and then in what really should be described as a “Dialogue” (in the sense that we’ve explored these past few days), with a group of students, who, in their very demeanour embodied some of the difficult concepts we have been talking about: intense, articulate young women in hijab studying the novels of D.H. Lawrence.
In November 2015, we met here in Sidi Bou Said, in this enchanting villa built by a romantic baron, to talk about Literature and Frontiers, and this time the young students were in the room with us, listening and posing astute questions. And here we are again, in May, 2016, for the fourth such encounter between writers of the Maghreb, and the writers of Europe (and in my case, beyond). Our subject this week has been Literature and Dialogue.
Before reflecting on our discussions this week, I’d like to take us back to that first meeting, when we came together in an act of solidarity, at the request of our Tunisian colleagues, to write a formal letter to His Excellencie, Monsieur Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, Président de la République tunisienne, to ask for his intervention in the case of the blogger, Jabeur Mejri who had been imprisoned for almost two years at that point, simply for expressing his opinion on Facebook. The text of our letter, which I might say took considerable negotiation and revision, which always happens when writers become one another’s editors, was as follows:
Dans l’esprit de solidarité qui nous unit en tant qu’humanistes, et conformément à votre récente promesse de le libérer, nous vous demandons d’accorder votre grâce à Jabeur Mejri.
Mejri was pardoned, after serving 2 years exactly, and arrested again several months later, pardoned a second time. This kind of intervention is very much what we do at PEN International, but for such a position to be articulated by a group of individual writers from various countries and cultures was significant. And over the subsequent three meetings, those of us who came from outside Tunisia were confronted each time by the courage and persistence of Tunisians determined to achieve democracy, in defiance of egregious acts of terrorism in their midst. Last November and again this week, we honoured the memory of the twenty-one people killed at the Bardo National Museum, where bullet holes and fractured glass cabinets remain as silent testimony to acts of terror in the midst of extraordinary beauty, history and creativity.
One other remarkable thing about that first meeting: at least two of the writers present, from Algeria and Morocco, told me that the conference was the first time that they had ever set foot in Tunis. So not only was the meeting bringing writers from Europe face to face with Maghrebian writers, it was introducing the writers of the Maghreb to one another. It was creating a space for frank and sometimes difficult conversations about the complexity of being a writer and how we embrace and work with the inescapable plurality of our identities. By accident of birth we enter into complex civilizations created through successive acts of settlement, invasion, conquest, and revolution. Our subsequent histories, and choices or changes of circumstance such as language and emigration and exile add multiple layers and elements to our identity. At the time I was struck by one very great difference between my sense of identity, born in North America, where I feel my identity determined shaped to a large extent by landscape and geography, and the identity of Euromaghreb writers, all of whom bear within them the enormous weight of history.
During our second meeting in 2014, Carles Torner and I, as representatives of PEN International, learned that there were Mauritanian writers who identified themselves as members of PEN, when PEN itself did not know of the existence of PEN members in Mauritania. This meeting resulted in the formal acceptance of PEN Mauritania into membership in PEN International last autumn, in Quebec City in Canada, a moment of joy tragically shadowed by the death, at that meeting, of the founding president of Mauritanian PEN, Djibril Ly, who had spoken so passionately about the importance of Engagement to us here in Tunisia only months before:
I’m writing to say no to this.
To say that things must change.
I write for the happiness of all.
At this meeting too, we felt in our midst the tremor and disturbance caused by the fact of exile; it was a subject that brought up deep, personal reflections on the identity of the writer—Are you Moroccan? Are you Dutch? I am a beekeeper—and the fact that one does not choose to be an exile, and one does not choose to be a writer.
Last November, we spoke about Literature and Frontiers. We were meeting in the midst of the ongoing drama of the refugee crisis, and the tragic realities of the shunting of refugees from one country to another, and the terrifying reality that you only get asylum if you almost drown, and the implicit dehumanization, the transformation of human refugees, people, into numbers, statistics, into torrents, floods, to be managed by floodgates.
But one of the results at that meeting was a coming together of translators and publishers, a frank and revealing exploration of the walls thrown up between real understanding between nations and cultures and people because we cannot read what is written by others, and as a result, mere others, other men and women, other writers, become not merely others, but the feared and demonized Other. And the breaking down of those barriers, barriers that would be maintained at all costs by the forces of evil, as I wrote then:
with the intention to throw up borders between individuals, to create walls of fear and distrust, to make the crossing of borders chaotic and to replace curiosity with timidity, to cause us to lock our doors and pull the shades and stay home, to make fortresses of our houses and cities and nations. To shy from making eye contact or shaking hands with strangers, and then of course, as we have seen, to resurrect the machinery of security and surveillance, in the name of anti-terrorism, for government leaders to place their hands on their hearts and march in the streets with everyone else, while at the same time, creating new rules and procedures for taking away rights and freedoms.
And so we are here for the fourth meeting; there are many familiar faces, from previous meetings, and many new faces. Our subject this week has been Literature and Dialogue: Madame Baeza presented to us at the outset the image of a “vertical vision of power,” which by its very nature, a hierarchy of power and competing authorities, makes dialogue impossible. The result, is an absence of dialogue, and either the terrific noise of competing positions or a resounding silence.
Walking up the hill today at noon, I listened to two competing calls to prayer, drowning one another out. I was reminded of being in Istanbul once, in the old centre, where there are two mosques very close to one another, and listening with pleasure to two distinct voices. I was told by a shopkeeper when I sought refuge from the rain that the two mosques have chosen not to compete, not to override one another, but to listen to one another, to pause, to allow room for the phrases of each others. And so the two calls to prayer became in effect a duet, an act of respect, and sharing, a dialogue.
Which it seems, we seem to think in this meeting, that “Dialogue” is often not. Or at least, dialogue as practiced by government actors, by politicians and diplomats. Such displays are often bereft of meaning and finally serve only the negative purpose of entrenching already firmly held positions and beliefs.
It seemed that of all the ideas we’ve explored over the past four meetings, this was the most difficult, because it took us toward abstractions. It seemed that notions of polarization, positions cast in concrete, pillars, were the terms in which we thought about “Dialogue”. We saw it as something requiring rules; we saw it as something that should be, but very often is not, preceded by acts of self-examination, decisions to sweep away the debris of firmly held notions with a broom, declarations of “mea culpa”. It seems that the very notion of Dialogue throws up silos—them and us, we, or I, and you—but too often You becomes The Other, a combatant or enemy, not a partner.
We were reminded more than once of the asymmetric stage on which formal dialogues, between nations, for example, are enacted, because of the drastic absence of understanding, and hence genuine communication, caused by the imbalance in our reading of one another’s literatures. Books are not translated and published, unless they are chosen because they FIT into an existing internal dialogue.
Dialogue demands trust of its participants. So too does translation.
It was suggested that what is needed is a kind of Marshall Plan for Translation, and we were reminded of the PEN Declaration on Translation which we presented at this meeting last November.
Once again, as writers, we confronted the burden of history, and the pressure placed upon contemporary attempts at dialogue by the ever-present shadow of the past. We were told that “Maghreb writers must release themselves from an aggressive past”. It was suggested that history has become a “corpse decomposing, that we bear within ourselves” and that “When history becomes untouchable, we are betraying history”.
We were reminded of the engendered nature of language, historically, and how that has suppressed memory, understanding and even history. And how the imposition of standard Arabic has constrained writers, although now, even through such innovative, informal uses of language like Facebook, the constraints are loosened. But it is important that writers not be imprisoned by an OFFICIAL WE— the cell of one ethnicity, one language.
But a cautionary note: not to expect simply enlightenment, and truth from literature; indeed, “every great text carries its own contradictions”. Words, said one speaker, are not always innocent.
We live in an epoch of barbarity, said another, and during a time when, because of the rampant progress of technology, barbarity invades the intimacy of our households. It was said that we are going through an ethical crisis that feeds on illiteracy, and the banishment of human rights. The female voice in these cultures is scorned, smothered.
It is essential that as writers/citizens, we find common ground outside of, away from the constraints of ideology and religion.
Why, in this present age would one become a writer, when he or she could be punished, beaten, beheaded, or sold as a slave to “warriors”.
It is essential to challenge the notion of “legitimacy.” Who can write about what? How do we get out from under the decrees of the intellectual elites?
What becomes of “my self” ?
Numerous speakers decried the notion of a “sacrilized” past. It was said that we must “reconcile with memory, in order to move forward with dialogue”.
We heard about the serious problem of cultures within nations not truly understanding one another, not really speaking with one another…talk/chat is not conducive to true communication.
It seemed that many of us instinctively resisted the idea of Dialogue, because it creates the uncomfortable notion of the Other, the Opposition, the Antithesis.
But we came back again to an acknowledgment of the fact that as writers, in the very act of writing we imagine many forms of the Other: the other in the drama of our characters, and the debate between ideas; the other in the form of the reader.
The discussion several times focused on the question of truth, and how we get to truth, and indeed if it is possible to arrive at “Truth” through dialogue. One writer suggested that seeking truth was like picking up the shards of glass from a shattered mirror.
We were reminded that literature itself expects, and gets, from readers, a “suspension of disbelief” which carries with it the implicit understanding or expectation that Truth can in fact be revealed through Lies, or Fictions.
But dialogue as practiced by writers, is, as we were finally reminded today, a craft, an artifice, literally the making up of encounters between characters, in a play or in a novel.
And from such artifice comes truth, revelation, understanding.
Literature is a dialogue with yourself.
Dialogue is a construct.
Conversation is real.
A simple question was posed by one of our final speakers: Has God created humanity from clay, given us reason, only to torture us?
What we have been given here, over these four remarkable and original meetings, is the opportunity for conversation, for which we deeply thank her Excellency, Madame Baeza. It has been a great privilege for PEN International to be a partner in these meetings, and an honour for me as a Canadian writer to attend all four meetings.
We’ve also had the opportunity to observe, and in a sense I hope take part in the progress of Tunisia towards democracy. Despite lingering problems—poverty, unemployment, and the deep disillusionment of young men especially—Tunisia is a much needed beacon of hope in a region where other beacons have flickered or been cruelly extinguished. I’m sure I can speak for all of the writers who have come to Tunisia for this meeting—once, twice, three, and now four times—our hearts, minds and words are with you, our courageous Tunisian colleagues. We share your dream of peace and democracy.
These meetings have demonstrated over and over again the profoundly significant role that literature, culture, writers play in creating new, meaningful dialogue between the people of many nations. We have indeed made “un pont entre les cultures.” We have engaged passionately, deeply with one another’s ideas. We’ve opened up frontiers for translation and publication. Our conversation will continue, in the four beautiful books that are a testament, an enduring record of these encounters, and in the acknowledgement, the recognition of one another, our books, our cultures, over the years to come.