Mediterranean, People and Books

Claudine Rulleau

Writer, Paris

Once again we have broken the record! Some 691 novels and 600 essays and documents lay piled up on the shelves of French bookshops in 2003. One thousand three hundred works! Should we be pleased or not? Can we say that in literature, as in other fields, quality does not go hand in hand with quantity? Does anyone read all these books? Does anyone see all the films? Does anyone listen to all the music recorded? Is there anybody who goes to all the exhibitions?

The French are still avid readers said Pierre Assouline in September’s editorial of the monthly magazine Lire, while reminding us that the presentation ceremony of the Goncourt Prize, the most prestigious in French literature, was featured in the television news headlines. “What are we complaining about?” he asked in conclusion. Well we could, for example, complain about seeing the presence of literature in the Mediterranean languages reduced, yet again, to a derisory figure; 80% of translations are from English, as usual. This does not however prevent the Mediterranean from being present here and there through numerous meetings, conferences and symposiums: wall, rampart, pit, summit, catwalk or bridge? One ends up lost in the conjecture over what the Mediterranean is and how it is perceived: it joins and separates, draws closer and rejects. A clash of civilizations or dialogue of cultures?

The pendulum swings from one pole to the other and it must be noted that politics exerts an influence, a great deal of it, in exchanges, whether they be intellectual or commercial. In the wake of the latest eruption of the Intifada in Palestine, the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 and the war on Iraq in spring 2003, culture is experiencing serious difficulties in making itself heard. La guerre en partage is the source of inspiration for the majority of works, whether fiction or otherwise, dedicated to Palestine, Israel and the region.

Some titles have enabled us to discover the nature of the ‘black genre’ produced by Israeli authors; others examine the controversy without solution posed by the question, “Does anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli mean anti-Semite or Judaeophobia?” Most, however, persist in attempting to unravel the inextricable, such as in the moving Our Sacred Land by Kenizé Mourad, or the vehement Face à la guerre, a letter from Ramallah written by Ilhan Halevi appealing to the international order to put an end to the individualised terrorism of Palestine and the state terrorism of Israel.

Such profusion reveals the usefulness of book fairs. Just as certain film festivals enable us to see films which would not usually be screened in cinemas, these events offer inquisitive readers the chance to discover new publishers and their work, the existence of which we would otherwise never know about. We mentioned earlier that nobody attends every exhibition. We now say, “You must visit every book fair”, whether its setting be Cairo or Beirut, Casablanca or Algiers, Bologna or Barcelona, Madrid or Paris.The journey is that much pleasanter when the occasion takes place annually or biannually.

In the Paris fair of March 2003 we had the opportunity to discover a number of Algerian authors as well as the strength of Algeria’s young publishers, above all the Arabic-speakers (access to Francophone publishers is far simpler).We should not however forget the many writers forced to move to France as a result of the Algerian troubles over recent years, such as Abderraman Bouchene, of the publishing house of the same name. “Djazaïr, Algeria Year in France” was the huge cultural encounter of 2003 which aroused bitter controversy between those in favour of the event and those against.

The former underlined its cultural aspects, while the latter emphasised its political implications. In all, nearly 2,000 acts, including theatre, cinema, poetry recitals, concerts, exhibitions, publications, sporting activities and conferences livened up the year, from Lille to Marseilles, passing through Paris, Nantes and Montpellier. “Djazaïr” led to the publication of a considerable number of works covering a wide range of fields, some of them the result of co-publishing arrangements: from Algerian heritage in the area of clothing depicted in the extraordinary illustrated volume entitled Traces d’Anges, 6 to the emir Abd el-Kader; from those who were repatriated, to the Harki people descended from Algerian soldiers loyal to France; from the dunes of the Sahara to the political fiction of Allah superstar. This was also the year chosen by the prestigious French-language writer Mohammed Dib to slip away in silence, leaving behind him more than 30 titles, above all in the narrative genre but also including poetry, stories and tales.

During the Euro-Arabic Book Fair which took place at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris in June 2003, at which Algeria was guest of honour, we were able to appreciate that publishing in the Lebanon had recovered its previous rhythm, that Egypt was holding its own, though it seems that books by the Nobel prizewinner for Literature Naguib Mahfuz are selling fewer copies than works of a religious nature, that publishing in Tunisia is experiencing difficulties in taking off, and that while business for the long-established, erudite publishing house Brill from the Netherlands, founded in Leiden in 1683, remained stable other, more recently established publishers (Jouvence in Rome, Ediciones del Oriente y del Mediterráneo in Madrid) are growing.

We also observed that much remains to be done for publishing production on one shore of the Mediterranean to equal that on the other.The Mediterranean Yearbook, published by the IEMed and the Fundació CIDOB, should serve to fill some of these gaps and improve relations. All of which leads us to conclude that the Italians, French and Spanish continue to enjoy a certain degree of privilege.There are books for all tastes, including the pleasures of the palate, perhaps one of the few points on which the Mediterranean brings consensus. Collections dedicated to cookery have multiplied in recent years: Actes Sud has one, “L’Orient gourmand” in which Les Aventures du Couscous by Hadjira Mouhoub and Claudine Rabaa has appeared, and the publishing house Edisud from Aix-en-Province has the “Voyages gourmands”, in which the book Cuisines de Turquie by Myriam Daumal occupies a prominent position.

The Mediterranean, or “Mare Nostrum”, also has its nostalgic spots, places never forgotten by those who visit them, gleaming forever in their memories. The inspiration of a multitude of texts, the city of Alexandria belongs to this group. The most recent such work to date, Les Alexandrins, was awarded the 2003 Mediterranean Prize, as was the case with El Emperador o El ojo del ciclón, which won the 2003 Mediterranean Prize for foreign novels. But Alexandria, which has an ‘old-boys’ association with headquarters in Switzerland and disciples all over the world, does not content itself with simply remembering annals of the past.

The new Great Library, inaugurated in 2002 and incorporating a public library, archives and school for librarians all under one roof, is a step towards recovering the book’s former splendour. From papyrus to the computer, the book is still going strong. “A marvellous trophy. And what independence! What a colleague! How much ammunition it provides! A range of information and a superb show! What a pleasant job it must afford to the profession that works with it! A sweet, tender kinsman in moments of solitude! A friend in the land of exile! […] The book is an urn, filled with knowledge, a recipient impregnated with refinement, a glass overflowing with seriousness and fun.” This homage to the book made in the The Book of Animals by Jâhiz Baghdad (776-868) as long ago as the 9th century should be engraved over the doorway of every school.