Last year’s Maghreb des Livres Book Fair in Paris surprised visitors by having no books, a temporary measure at this annual rendez-vous for everyone interested in books in French on the Arab Maghreb countries of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria made necessary by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, at this year’s Fair, which took place from 13 to 15 May at the usual venue of the City Hall in Paris, books were very much back in evidence along with a stimulating programme of discussions, debates, and interviews with French and Franco-Arab authors.
As has been the case in recent years, the Fair was also extended beyond the Maghreb countries, with organisers French NGO Coup de Soleil being joined by IREMMO, the Institut de recherche et d’études Méditerranée Moyen-Orient, and also including books in French on the east of the Arab world. The Fair was thus not only the 28th edition of the Maghreb des Livres, but also the 5th edition of the Orient des Livres, a sister event dedicated to the Mashreq countries.
This year sees the 60th anniversary of the signature of the Evian Accords that ended the Algerian War of Independence in March 1962, with Algeria formally becoming an independent country some months later. The Accords are being marked in France with exhibitions and other events both in Paris and elsewhere, and there has been a slew of new books in French on colonial and post-colonial Algeria, including on the controversial question of how the War is remembered.
Veteran French historian Benjamin Stora, born in Algeria in 1950 and the author of many well-regarded books on both colonial and post-colonial Algeria as well as on the Algerian Independence War, was on hand at this year’s Maghreb des Livres to talk about his work and about a report on Franco-Algerian relations commissioned by the French government that he produced last year (published as France-Algérie, les passions douloureuses – “painful memories”). He was accompanied by many other writers, historians, novelists, and the authors of memoirs, all of whom had interesting things to say about France and Algeria.
Books discussed at the Fair this year included young French historian Raphaelle Branche’s En guerre(s) pour Algérie, a book of interviews carried out as part of an oral history project on memories of the War funded by the French Institut national de l’Audiovisuel (INA) and the Franco-German broadcaster Arte for a series of TV programmes. Branche is the author of the highly regarded Papa, qu’as-tu fait en Algérie? (Daddy, what did you do in Algeria?), a pathbreaking oral history in which she interviewed the families of some of the one and a half million French soldiers, most of them conscripts, who fought on the French side during the Algerian War.
In the introduction to her new book, Branche writes that some 70 interviews were carried out both in France and Algeria as part of the INA-Arte project, with all those volunteering to be interviewed about their memories of the War being young, sometimes very young, during its nearly ten-year duration.
“The initial question was always the same,” she says. “’What was life like during the War?’ For those interviewed, the project meant going back more than 60 years, often more that 80, with the emphasis being placed on what they saw happen. All of them were able to say, ‘I was there. I saw that,’ and also to describe what they did and thought at the time.”
Branche, like other authors with books on the Maghreb published this year, had made it to the Fair to meet her readers, notably during a panel on the event’s first day on remembering the Algerian War that also saw the participation of other authors.
Marie-Claude Akiba Egry discussed her L’Enfant qui se taisait (The Child who Keeps Quiet), a novel about a child caught up in the violence, Nadia Henri-Moullai discussed her Un rêve, deux rives (One Dream, Two Banks), a novel about Algerian immigration to France, and Paul Max Morin discussed his Les Jeunes et la guerre d’Algérie (Young People and the Algerian War), an investigation into how the War is seen among members of the younger generation.
Other themes in evidence at this year’s Fair took off from current events in the Maghreb and the Middle East and how these are being written about by mostly French or Franco-Arab authors. Palestinian author and sometime Weekly contributor Ghada Karmi had come over from London to discuss the French translation, carried out by well-known French writer and publisher Eric Hazan, of her book Israel-Palestine, la solution: un état (originally published as Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine).
This she did on a panel with Sylvain Cypel, author of L’Etat d’Israel contre les Juifs (The State of Israel against the Jews) and well-known commentator Alain Gresh, author of dozens of books on all aspects of the Middle East and most recently of La Révolution palestinienne et les Juifs (The Palestinian Revolution and the Jews).
Continuing the Middle Eastern theme, authors Justine Augier, Cecile Boax, Souad Labize, and Jean-Pierre Perrin discussed the on-going conflict in Syria, now pushed off the front pages of many of the world’s newspapers by the war in Ukraine. Perrin is the author of the tragically and perhaps all too aptly named Une Guerre sans fin (An Endless War), while Augier has recently published Par une espèce de miracle: l’exile de Yassin al-Haj Saleh, an account of her discussions with this distinguished Syrian intellectual who now lives in exile in Berlin.
Shuttling back and forth between Paris and Berlin for the best part of a year to interview al-Haj Saleh, Augier writes of this period in the introduction to her book that “during all that time, the destruction continued in Syria. Fighters against the al-Assad regime, together with all those civilians who either could not or would not flee the country, had been pushed into the Idlib region, an area containing enclaves held by the opposition… As I write these lines, more than three million people are living under bombs raining down on hospitals, schools, and shopping areas, on everything in fact that could make life more bearable.”
Destruction of another kind, this time economic, was also the theme of another panel at this year’s Fair on the current crisis in Lebanon. Authors Sophie Brones and Hyam Yared discussed their Beyrouth dans ses ruines (Beirut in Ruins), a description of some of the ruined buildings in the Lebanese capital, destroyed, or partially destroyed, during the Civil War, and Implosions, a novel featuring the Beirut Port explosions in August 2020, with moderator Agnes Levallois.
Dialogue: As has become a tradition at the Maghreb des Livres, the focus of the discussions was not only on new books in French on the Arab world. Many of the invited writers had written books on the relations between France and the Arab countries, particularly the Maghreb, and these also gave rise to rewarding discussions.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Sindbad, originally an independent publisher, though later acquired by the larger Arles-based company Actes sud, that whether under the Sindbad imprint or that of its more recent owner has become the most important publisher of particularly modern Arabic literature in translation in France. A panel on the Fair’s second day featured a number of contributors who shared their memories.
Farouk Mardam-Bey, editor for Actes sud of fiction translated from Arabic as well as of the publisher’s larger “Mondes Arabes” collection of non-fiction and other works, spoke on the history of the imprint as well as on the role it has played in making Arabic literature better known in France. Before the appearance of Sindbad in the early 1970s, he said, very few works of modern Arabic literature had been translated into French – he mentioned Egyptian writers Taha Hussein’s autobiography The Days and Tawfiq al-Hakim’s novel-memoir Diary of a Country Prosecutor as exceptions – and those that had had chiefly been presented as works of ethnography.
Sindbad, and particularly its expansion in the hands of Actes sud, had changed all that, he said, pointing to the appearance of translations of the novels of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz into French in the 1970s and later of a series of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Lebanese authors. According to other members of the panel, it had been the existence of the Actes sud list that had first caused them to be interested in translation.
Translator Khaled Osman, growing up in France but of Egyptian descent, described sending his first translation, of Mahfouz’s novel The Thief and the Dogs, to Sindbad in the 1990s, for example. Yemeni writer Habib Abdulrab Sarori, whose novel Le Rapport de la Huppe, translated from Arabic and to appear in October, described his own introduction to Arabic literature, whether classical or modern, as having come about through translations published by Actes sud. Books had been hard to come by in his native Yemen, he said, and when he came to France he had found reading translations a good way of learning the language and of learning more about Arabic literature.
All the panelists described their pleasure at reading Actes sud translations, with the publisher continuing the tradition of fine printing and high-quality binding begun by Sindbad. France must be the only country in the world where modern Arabic literature appears in luxury editions, Mardam-Bey commented, and it is interesting to compare this situation with parallels in the UK, where early translations were published in cheap editions by an educational publisher, Heinemann, and the US, where they are published by university presses.
Could one conclude that modern Arabic literature in translation has a small but well-heeled audience in France, was originally available mostly for use in schools in the UK, and is produced mainly or entirely for university study in the US? Perhaps this says more about these respective countries and their publishing industries than about modern Arabic literature.
Finally, this year’s Maghreb des Livres had many of the strengths and weaknesses of earlier editions. On the one hand, it was an opportunity, eagerly taken up by the Fair’s attentive audiences, to review this year’s crop of books in French on the Maghreb countries and the wider Arab world. Most of these were available for purchase, and many of their authors were visiting the Fair either to speak on a panel, answer interview questions, or sign copies.
In addition to the titles mentioned above, Fabrice Riceputi’s Ici on noya les algériens (We Drown Algerians), an account of the killing by the French police of between 200 and 300 Algerians in Paris in 1961, Malika Rahal’s Algérie 1962, une histoire populaire, a reconstruction of life in Algeria in the year of independence, and Farid Alilat’s prize-winning biography of former Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, were all being given prominence.
However, there was little or no representation from the region at the Fair, either from the Maghreb or the Mashreq countries. Speakers on a panel on “dialogue through books across the Mediterranean” suggested some of the possible reasons for this, including the small number of publishers publishing in French even in the Maghreb countries where French remains an important literary language, the small size and limited means of those that do exist, and problems of distribution and translation.
Visitors to this year’s Maghreb des Livres will come out with a good idea of what French readers are reading about the Maghreb countries. They will have far less of an idea, or any idea at all, of what Maghreb readers who read in French (or Arabic) are reading.
Maghreb-Orient des Livres, Paris, 13-15 May
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.