The Inherent Intercultural Space of Literary Creation

Najat El Hachmi

Writer, Spain

The conflict between tradition and modernity, between codes of distinct cultures, is the ideal place for artistic creation and the construction of our own identity. In the case of the author, reading has embodied a refuge-space for observing reality, and writing has enabled her to take advantage of the intercultural experience. But writers at this intersection between two cultures (emigrants or children of emigrants) run several risks related precisely to their status. The risk of self-exoticisation consists of basing the story on the description of traditions and details of local customs. There can also be misunderstandings in how works of literature are received, as many readers are far removed from the vision the writer seeks to offer. In any case, what defines literature, independently of its geographical origin, is its reflection on universal themes with the aim of understanding the common background inherent in the human condition.

In summer, there was no room in the toilets on the ferry from Almería to Nador or Malaga to Nador, especially just before reaching port. As the voyage lasted around eight hours, we usually went at night. Suddenly, in the early morning the silence of snores, gasps and coughs was broken in the lounge, where the first to find a place had improvised beds of blankets on the carpet and the others rested as best they could on the seats and covered themselves up to their chins with their coats. As I was saying, suddenly the women would push their way to the toilets not only to wash themselves and brush their hair, but also to change clothes. They took off their trousers or skirts, Christian clothes, they said, and put on kanduras and djellabas; the proudest of their new found wealth after migration, dressed in party clothes and gold jewels. They made up their eyes, the most modern applied creams while the more traditional chewed walnut bark. Together they impregnated that minuscule space, the floor almost always soaked with somewhat murky water, with a certain air of celebration. It was, in fact, a ritual I had seen carried out by the women just before weddings and birth or circumcision festivities. Therefore, those special preparations could well be interpreted thus: as a sign of happiness at returning home after one or two years without seeing the family, what better than to wear party clothes as a symbol of the happiness that the much awaited reunion meant? And this was indeed one of the motives, but there was another, more complex and more intercultural, we could say: in general, family pressure in terms of the danger of losing “our” customs, which were identified with decency and religious observance, weighed heavily on the women who lived in Europe.

Women, more than men, have always been under scrutiny: if they had adapted too much to the new country, this meant that in no time at all nothing would remain of our way of life, of our values and customs. Thus, the children, encouraged by their mothers’ process of adaptation, would integrate so much with the people of foreign countries that they would soon look more to the present than the past, and cease to return “home”. For all these reasons, in those European cities or villages where the communities of immigrants are concentrated and also come from the same area, it often happens that social control focuses on the clothing of mothers and daughters. For a period in the community I know, there was a kind of pact of silence according to which you were permitted to wear a skirt or trousers with a long shirt abroad, but once home you returned to traditional dress without the family there knowing anything of this reality, not even from other Moroccans who could well have passed on this kind of detail to shock the family members who had remained there. Yes, that’s right, so-and-so wears a skirt below her knees with her head uncovered as if she were unmarried, they could have said. But no, in this case an exception was made because more or less all women followed the same process of adaptation in terms of clothing. Thus, the toilet moment in the ferry became an event of environmental and intercultural adaptation charged with symbolism. The women changed their skins to become more Moroccan, more from the Riff. Upon return, they followed the process in reverse and rid themselves of those bothersome fabrics to return to more practical ones that gave them more freedom of movement, accustomed as they were to wearing “Christian clothes” at least eleven months a year.

We, the daughters of these women, brought up or born in the new “Christian” lands where the immigrants had settled, found the scene very normal and even amusing, like the prelude to school fancy dress parties or theatre performances. All was fine until we reached the age to become or seem to be women and mothers and, why deny it, the men of the family also considered that we should initiate ourselves in this ritual. We, who arrived in the village, proud and a little swanky, with our more or less tight fitting jeans, our T-shirts and jackets, feeling different to the children who had stayed behind because the same rules were not applied to us, suddenly found ourselves urged to return to the traditional customs. It was really incongruent, we believed, to have to dress one way in one place and another in the other. Thus began the rebellion and what we ended up defining as an intercultural intergenerational conflict.

However, this element, clothing, was only the tip of the iceberg that concealed a rubbing of tectonic plates that was the meeting and divergence between tradition and modernity. It was not, as we thought, a conflict inherent in the status of immigrants, but rather this great dialogue was taking place in Morocco itself. And throughout the Arab world, perhaps even for more time than we realised. But let us return to the earlier scene to explain what it has to do with literary creation. In the moment when we daughters are asked to adeptly balance the cultural codes of the two shores of the Mediterranean, as well as a high level of adaptation to family and group circumstances, our lives become, to say the least, complicated and the stress becomes acute. And the need to try make sense of the external demands and discourses is more than clear. This place of divergence, this space without meaning or with so many distinct meanings at the same time, in which it is so difficult to construct a logic of life, is the ideal place for literary creation to emerge. I suppose, although I lack the experience to prove it, that it is the perfect place for any kind of artistic creation. I can pay testimony to literary creation because I have experienced it in my own skin, but also because it is almost a natural consequence of the reality I have described.

For a period there was a kind of pact of silence according to which you were permitted to wear a skirt or trousers with a long shirt abroad, but once home you returned to traditional dress

If there is something essential in a shifting environment, this something is the story, the explanation and description of some events that take place in a determined time and space, which is the text. We daughters of immigrants know this very well: our parents have told us the story of “where we are from” thousands of times during our childhood to leave engrained in us the origin that they fear so much we will lose. It is a tedious story but charged with highly literary mythologizing. Moreover, we have to explain millions of times “who we are” to avoid being devoured by the paternal story, or overly diluted in the alternative discourses of the “host society” that seems, and often only seems, to want to incorporate us. Therefore, the story becomes essential for avoiding a certain kind of schizophrenia of identity. Because, however much multicultural societies are lauded for their many good points, it is also true that we have had very few resources until now to confront this situation. Everyone talks about the clash of civilisations referring to the issue of integration of immigrants and elements related with coexistence in common and public spaces, but few people talk about the inner conflict of immigrants and their families. Therefore, what normally happens is that we sons and daughters have learnt to investigate, to investigate extensively.

We have had to recompose a broken mirror, that of the world we come from, to reconstruct it, fragment by fragment, and make it a new one that reflects what we have decided to be. We have received from our parents a slanted reflection of our origin – one can never trust a single vision that defines a society, and given that we have never lived “there”, our cultural inheritance from “there” becomes irremediably limited. Hence, the well-intentioned affirmation that by being born in a country and having lived in another we already have “many cultures” is so ridiculous. But that is another debate. The fact is, with a rather scarce legacy about what it means to be Moroccan − and, in the case of this writer, what it means is to be from the Riff or Amazigh, and more broadly about what it means to be Muslim − we have had to construct an alternate identity, to be different in the host society. Moreover, life pushed us towards the comfort of feeling ourselves to be from here and thus began the difficulty of having to marry the two things. Therefore, everything comes down to an identity rather than cultural conflict. In my particular case, and I think in that of many writers from environments regarded as multicultural, the response to this conflict was writing. First, reading in all its aspects, written and oral, became a refuge-space for deliberate observation of this dizzy reality, a place for comparing and finding apparently invisible common elements. Only a brief banal example but symbolically significant for this writer: in a chapter of A Broken Mirror, the excellent novel by Mercè Rodoreda, one of the most important authors in Catalan literature, the housemaid shoos away the houseflies in a room using a cloth until they are outside. A gesture I had seen my grandmother do almost every day in summer, after cleaning and tidying a room. One might think this a wholly insignificant detail, that it is not the place where the dialogue of civilisations or intercultural alliances are conceived, but I assure you that I was at my most emotional when, upon reading this fragment, I saw on the written page of one of the best novels by one of the best female authors in the western world an exact description of the actions of a tired old illiterate woman, who had had ten children in the arid rural areas of northern Morocco.

We have to explain millions of times “who we are” to avoid being devoured by the paternal story, or overly diluted in the alternative discourses of the “host society”

Personally, I believe that the fact of having been a compulsive reader during our process of settling in the new society was fortunate, and really allowed me to get the most out of the intercultural experience. In fact, alongside the role of the literary creation I will explain next, I believe it was a way of turning an experience of change of place that could have been merely intercultural, in the sense of experiencing two juxtaposed realities that exist shoulder to shoulder, into an intercultural vision that means the construction of a hybrid identity made up of multiple pieces that more or less harmoniously fit together, first at an individual level and, hopefully in a not too distant future, also solidified at a collective level. Reading helped me to observe, to understand in depth, to compare, to establish relations, let us say, to put all the pieces in order on the table, but thanks to writing I was able to begin the process of creating this new world. The image that has been most useful to me to describe this is that of patchwork, the cloth made of different pieces of fabric combined to complement each other or create contrasts, and writing is the needlework that gradually unites them to form an object that makes sense in itself, beyond the separate fragments. This is why I said that literary creation is the most logical of responses to these kinds of situations. What can give more meaning to what seems meaningless than the story?

The fact of having been a compulsive reader during our process of settling in the new society was fortunate, and really allowed me to get the most out of the intercultural experience

This does not mean that, on the path we must follow, we authors who find ourselves at this intersection do not run various risks related precisely with our status. To begin, there is the risk of self-exoticisation; that is, writing superficially by particularly emphasising the definitive elements of the society of origin, focusing on the description of local customs and manners. It is a trap into which one can easily fall: on the one hand, our “western” readers love the exotic vignettes completely removed from reality itself, but we are also seduced by the easy path of describing secondary elements of the narration that leaves aside exploration, often difficult and conflictive, of universal themes. Moreover, we usually mythologize, idealise or dramatise the experiences of the reality in our country of origin, in such a way that they become highly productive material. The other big danger, which concerns the reader, is the reception of what we create. All authors complain about the interpretation of their works, but in our case those who read us can be highly removed from the vision we seek to give. An extreme example: in El último patriarca [The Last Patriarch] there is a chapter in which the protagonist is a victim of sexual abuse from his uncle just at the time of his sexual awakening. This event, which is, of course, a particular moment in the life of the character, has been interpreted by more than one “western” reader as a custom of the area: they understand that boys in Morocco are usually sexually initiated by their uncles. As I say, this is an extreme case and quite absurd, but less striking examples also have readings that are, let us say, “culturally” slanted.

Fortunately, as this is about describing universal themes through the variation involved in the depiction of our particular landscapes, the majority of these readers gain an insight into more than just the regional and traditional particularities. Because, in the end, it is for this reason that literature, read or written, is so useful: despite the differences between countries, customs and ways of thinking and understanding life, the final background is always the same. Suffering, enjoyment, the search for happiness, love, and the impulse of life and death are inherent in the human condition whether they are narrated from the frozen lands of the north or the suffocating heat of the desert. The process of finding ourselves literarily represented in all the diverse cultural and regional manifestations is what makes us realise we are very similar, so that, albeit temporarily, our solitude is mitigated.