In a previous interview (Africultures 13, Dec. 1998), Abdelwahab Meddeb called for an end to North Africa’s inhibitions about its African identity. Here, he similarly calls for a meditation on the colonial era through post-colonial thought.
Why hasn’t the concept of post-colonialism, which is very widely studied in the United States, been as successful in France and the European sphere?
It seems very straightforward to me. Thinking about post-colonialism in France touches on something inhibited, which belongs to the realm of the subconscious. I think that the main reason is that it necessarily requires a redeployment of your own hierarchy. Francophonie* was invented in place of post-colonialism, and has become academic and official. In the Francophonie framework, we continue to function in terms of the centre/margin paradigm – France being the centre and the origin of the language, and the power it confers, and the margin only being on the receiving end. The notion of post-colonialism implies the destitution of the centre. The very idea of the centre is challenged. We are haunted in France by something with which the Arabs are very familiar – which is why I, who, as an Arab, belong to a very old deposed entity, view this with a great degree of malice: the fear of deposition.
The concept of neocolonialism is very common in France. Doesn’t this incorporate the notion of post-colonialism?
I don’t know. The term currently used in France instead of post-colonialism is decolonization, which is a specific historical moment, haunted by neocolonialism. In post-colonialism, however, there is the very important question of decentring.
The French reproach the Americans for their lack of understanding of the history of Africa. People claim that it is impossible to speak about post-colonialism until we have finished meditating on ,and thinking about, the nature of colonialism. Do you agree with this view?
It is really time to think very seriously about colonialism, and that is not being done. The work may well have been carried out in research departments, but it is not a national subject. The holocaust is a national subject, not colonization.
That, indeed, reminds me of a text by Todorov in L’Homme dépaysé (The Disoriented Man), in which he writes that it is quite paradoxical that the holocaust, a period which was quite short in the history of France, is the object of reflection, whereas colonialism – he takes the example of Algeria – is not thought about.
The nation is not asked to meditate upon it. Post-colonialism necessarily entails a reflection on the colonial era, in the same movement. And, in particular, on this: the colonial encounter was perceived as a humanist, civilizing encounter, and, for that reason, was the domain of the left-wing, not the right. As early as 1834, one finds a significant passage in Le Miroir by Hamdan Khodja. The book is only interesting for this paragraph. Four years after the Algeria expedition, the author writes: « You are killing a constituted country, with its own history, population, its own diversity. You are contravening your principals of freedom, equality and sovereignty – they cannot be applied to such an act. You are helping nations which did not exist before to emerge (Greece, Poland, Belgium) and you have come to annul an already constituted entity? » We are faced with what I have called the aporia, that is, the huge divide that exists between the Enlightenment principles and the colonial encounter. It is a very early argument which was taken up by the nationalists in the 30s-40s-50s: turning French principals against France itself.
At the same time, in the introductory text to issues 5 and 6 of your journal Dédale on Postcolonialism, you have written that, at the end of the day, the nuance between those who promote the universal, and those who think that « you are you and I am me » is very slight…
They are two very different traditions, the Anglo-Saxon model and the French model. The French tradition advocates its model as the universal model, and claims to bring this model to the world. That text is, in fact, about this confrontation, which is embodied by two almost contemporaneous personalities: Jules Ferry and Kipling. Ferry swore by universalism, whilst Kipling wrote, « I am me and you are you » and never the twain shall meet. But, ultimately, yes, the outcome is more or less the same.
But the outcome is more or less the same.
You also speak about photography in that text. What justifies referring to photography in relation to the concept of post-colonialism?
Photography is a major art form. It has been treated as an inferior form of art, but it has had a perhaps devastating effect on painting because it almost definitively violated the tradition of mimesis, the Western tradition. To my mind, photography is a profoundly mystical art as it manipulates light, shadow, and then there is that extraordinary miracle of capturing an infinite fraction of time and retaining it. We are practically in the realm of mystical abduction. The second major element of photography is that, in the most strictly mimetic way, it is a document of what no longer exists. We can see for ourselves how a society was, in a state which is no longer its own.
At the same time, you say that you are not nostalgic for the past.
Time has already done its work and has already operated a selection. The virtuous side of what we still have from the past is what emerges. But there are also things which happen before our very eyes and mark us. I do not function on the belief that the past is good and the present awful. The present is more heterogeneous. I strive to belong to my time, but, at the same time, I do not barter the past. I like to say that I am as old as a literary text, no matter which one, which continues to speak to me and with which I can converse… I take the age of that text.
Graphics and fine art are very present in your texts. Are they a personal passion?
Probably the most important thing in Islamic tradition is what I would call the aesthetic being. Unfortunately, contemporary Islam is removed from that. When I was a child, a large part of my family lived in the medina. I used to visit the mosques with my father. It was a childhood in the heart of beauty. At about the age of 17-18, when I discovered the French authors such as Diderot, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Proust, I discovered a passion for painting and art in all these authors, but I only had access to illustrations. Perhaps one of the reasons for my expatriation was to get closer to the oasis of painting. On arrival in Europe, I changed my literature studies to history of art. It wasn’t in order to become an art historian, but to make up for this absence and lack.
* Translator’s note: ‘Francophonie’ is both a cultural and political concept used to refer both to the French-speaking nations collectively, and to the policy of perpetuating and defending the French language (and thus, implicitly, French influence).A Literature lecturer at the University of Paris X, Abdelwahab Meddeb is also a classical Arabic translator and chief editor of the journal Dédale. He is best known as a novelist, notably having written: Talismano (Christian Bourgois, 1979), Tombeau d’Ibn Arabi (Noël Blandin, 1987), Le Bâton de Moïse (Génération, 1989), La Gazelle et l’enfant (Actes Sud), Blanches traverses du passé (Fata Morgana, 1997), Aya dans les villes (Fata Morgana, 1999). He presents the radio programme Cultures d’Islam on France Culture every Sunday morning at 7.30 am.///Article N° : 5449