In Conversation with Mona Chollet

In residence in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, since fall 2001, the Iraqi writer Alia Mamdouh outlines her position as an indomitable and marginal writer who has always struggled for the right to explore her own creativity. Through her tough, violent, sensual writing she seeks a form of subterranean truth, removed from the perverse ideologies that do violence to human reality and continue to ravage the Arab world. A close observer of the Arab literary life and of East-West relations, she also recalls her career as a cultural journalist who has lived and worked in several Arab and Western capitals, from Baghdad to Beirut, London to Paris.

You define yourself as a "writer of the sensual," and this quality is obvious to anyone who reads your books. Would you say that for you sense and the senses are fused together?
Sensations aren't hypothetical in the sense that they can be verified later. Being sensitive is a way of perceiving the poeticity of existence. It's also a language, a tongue, and a freedom to combine, to unite antagonistic civilizations. I'm not referring to "biological sexuality," in spite of its importance in terms of human posterity. When I say that I'm a writer attuned to her senses, I mean to indicate one of the forms whereby creative writing can be accomplished. Through Islamic civilization, Arab literature has offered styles and signs—in poetry and prose, in narratives and tales, in analysis, and chiefly in Eastern mysticism. It has also furnished concepts that are specific to sacred and profane fields, concepts which constituted an esthetic and rhetorical heritage and which steeped profane ideas in spiritual values, and singularly modernized the theme of sacred love via the gods, and created evocations of Eros to reach secret regions of the mind. To me, this is the radical and avant-gardist dimension of the Eastern literatures in general—Arabic, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese.

What do you mean by "tendency to write revenge"? Is this writing that strives to respond to power instead of seeking its own path?
Quite on the contrary. I'm opposed to vengeful writing. I've endeavored as far as possible to get rid of any ideological connotations that may have slipped unconsciously into my texts and narratives. They are useless in literature and hardly excite the imagination. In my novels especially, I've adopted a position of coldness and rigorousness in describing the experience of love or the gamble of freedom. I don’t even look on death with hatred. Death gives intensity to some of the characters in my novels, though hatred, fear, and terror obey social as well as textual rules. Someone mentioned the idea of "toughness as a way of life," a toughness that extends to a cold tenderness, for it fits in with what happens around us. I believe that writing is a kind of self-consolidation, and if there's one authority to which I aspire, it certainly isn't political power but the power of art and the power of freedom.

In Mothballs and your text for Autodafé, you refer to family circles where the father embodies authority and no other family member is entitled to a personal space. You compare this relationship to Hieron, the tyrant who imposed silence on his subjects. Do you have the feeling that growing up in a circle like this prepared you for confronting authority in a wider context, that of national space?
It's true in a way. Hieron of Syracuse, the fifth century BC tyrant, was so cruel that he forbade his subjects to speak. However, fascism didn't stop people from speaking; on the contrary, it obliged them to speak. Over the centuries, true writers have striven to fight against both extremes: the ban on speaking and the obligation to speak. Freedom always flowers when differences between ideas, societies, and nations increase. And because I've never militated in a political party in my own country, writing remains the immense field of my personal struggle. No one owns the truth; truths are scattered all around us and we must seek them within, inside each one of us. This is why at times art appears more valuable than truth.

You seem to be saying that Arab literature suffers on the one hand from the fact that Arab writers allow their course to be dictated to them, and, on the other hand, from the fact that the West, even when it seems to be trying to understand it, merely has a superficial perception of Arab culture and hears only those things that correspond to its prejudiced views. What do you regard as conditions for a more satisfying exchange?
This question brings us back to history, to the bloody period when our societies suffered under French and British colonialism. For the West is not a block, in spite of the fact that the assault on us in the past (and still today) had the magnitude of a deluge, as Washington reaped the riches of the two former colonial powers and became a model of domination through colossal companies, military bases scattered over more than a thousand locations worldwide, and a stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The West still isn't capable of understanding the Arabs and their aspirations. Differences in language, religion, logic, thought, different concepts of freedom and truth, honor and family, friendship and generosity, all these differences led, and still lead, to misunderstandings between Arabs and the West. After World War II, many Arab intellectuals and artists began to study art and literature in the West. In Baghdad, poets found a voice close to their own in T. S. Eliot's famous "Waste Land." As for France, Arab-Muslim culture penetrated it through a slow accumulation of works by French writers and artists who drew inspiration from the Arab heritage. The British on the other hand showed little interest in the Arabs themselves, while making a great fuss about heroes who played a major role in Arab countries, like T. E. Lawrence. For their part, the Americans were only interested in oil and how to distribute it through multinational companies.

Even Westerners who resided in Arab countries for long stretches of time kept to the fringes of Arab society. They barricaded themselves in their air-conditioned homes and made no efforts to maintain unprejudiced contacts with the local inhabitants. The sad and paradoxical fact is that Arabs seem to have a clearer perception of the West than Westerners have of the Arabs. An Arab writer once said that the greater the West's influence over our societies, the further we drift away from it. In this sense, the West has imposed its modes of thought, methods, and analytical categories, its economy, experimental sciences, theories of literary criticism, etc. But it hasn't invented new ways of getting along with and understanding us. In the eyes of the West we're an object to be used in a variety of ways. At times we're seen as victims of underdevelopment; at other times we're viewed as perpetrators of violence and terrorism.

From this standpoint, a cultural heritage embodies a mix of many different elements—Arab, Oriental, and European. This is always what happens with human civilizations. There's no such thing as a pure civilization. This is why France's efforts to explore the Arab heritage, both classical and modern, are very important. They signal a return to the sources of its eminent cultural heritage and to the humanist mission of its Revolution and first laws. What the two publishers Actes Sud and Sindbad have accomplished since the Seventies and continue to accomplish is an act of fairness: a valuable and amicable recognition of generations of Arab authors, men and women. And even though the Arab output surpasses the capacities of those two publishers and the press coverage has been extremely weak, it is a beginning, and that is what matters. I'm not claiming that the Arab output contains exceptional works, but judging from the translations of Western literature I've read, many Arab works surpass in beauty and depth the work of European authors being published in the West. I would suggest increasing the number of translations from Arabic into European languages, and I appeal to the West to pay far more attention to that "Other" than it is presently doing.

You have also written: "From my own observations, it seems to me that across the passage of the last thirty years, a secret language has formed inside of our Arabic language."
Could you explain this a little?
By "secret language" I mean creative experiments by Arab authors in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, as well as Saudi Arabia: their inventiveness, their work on language and narration, their creation of models which technically transcend actual facts, their resolve to develop a vision that is not dominated by Eurocentrism. What people call cultural invasion—which France in particular suffers from in its cultural confrontation with the United States—has opened up for us and others in the Near East the possibility of questioning everything and becoming radically aware of the disillusions produced by modernity as a rational approach, subsequent to the failure of revolutions and models championed by revolutionary thought and world culture. All of this without any introspective withdrawing, any backsliding, as was the case with a certain number of renowned Arab works. The honest critic who's capable if reading this production and understanding its intentions, its paths and authors would discover a different language, logic, and analysis within texts whose creativity, writing, and universe endure as a constant challenge to us.

You made a name for yourself as a journalist before becoming known as a writer. What brought you to journalism?
Most of the newspapers in countries that have recently gained their independence, such as the Arab countries, are organs of political parties, whether they're opposition parties like the Iraqi Communist Party or parties in power like the Baas. Every party has its newspaper, periodicals, reviews, and instruments of propaganda. And because civil society has as yet failed to develop in a coherent manner, independent writers, among whose ranks I count myself, have endeavored to free themselves from the ties of ideology and its global concepts which have a negative effect on literature and culture. I worked for a newspaper in the private sector and was its editor-in-chief for several years; in spite of the dominance of party-line thinking, I found ways of outwitting the authorities and publishing ideas that escaped the ideological framework to a lesser or greater extent. The cultural domain, which was my field, gave me opportunities to find out about what was taking place around me in Iraq. I became known through the press, but at the same time I was busy writing short stories and open texts and, eventually, a novel. Then I left Iraq for good in 1982.

How do you connect your journalistic activities with your literary work?
Writing for the press is urgent work, provisional work that goes dry within a matter of hours. Yet the press strengthens one's relationship with other people, the men in one's environment, and with appearances, direct responsibilities, centers of power, old and new types of corruption, angels and demons. Through human experiences, it also offers the writer a great variety of elements. I once referred to the press as "the cook," because it lets you sample all kinds of delicious foods from every pot. But in the end you wipe your lips and go and cook your own dish, your own creation, your own writing.

In La Garçonne (The Girl Who Lived Like a Boy), my last novel published over a year ago, I delved into my subject by describing the relationships between the employees of the newspaper where I'd worked for several years in Baghdad and by recalling the Iraqi intellectuals I'd met in the field of culture. I waited more than twenty years to be able to put my vision of the intellectual, as I discovered him, in this narrative. Arab intellectuals are like scarecrows in gardens and fields; they try to intimidate, to rebel against political power; they're elegant, scented, and full of theories and illusions. They are the latest product of the Arab ideologies—a product weakened by worn-out European arrogance and the Arab decadence of the early days. Where the intellectual seems most rigid and most fearful is in his attitude toward women, and this is observable both in the Communist and the Baasist intellectual: he gets angry if his mate displays sexual desire for him, and will even treat her as a whore for doing so.

Under what circumstances were you obliged to leave Iraq in 1982?
No one obliged me to leave. To put it very briefly, I wanted to stop my only son from being sent to the front where he was due to go for summer military training, which was the only way for a boy to avoid becoming a soldier after leaving high school, and being drafted in a stupid and bloody war. I'm speaking about the Iran-Iraq war. Moving with my son from capital to capital, I experienced the profound suffering of émigrés, although life in different European and Arab metropolises is a wonderful gift for a writer. The loss of my first homeland eventually brought me moral strength and a way of thinking and living differently, as well as a positive moral health which lets me transcend suffering only when I call upon it as a factor of creativity, and this given my life more openness and my suffering more humanity.

How were you prevented from working before you left Iraq?
In Iraq, I published and worked in the cultural field. I wasn't banned from writing, but whole pages of my first novel, Layla et le loup (Layla and the Wolf), were censored, as were many, many lines and expressions in my articles. There was a censor who acted in the government's name; he would read, monitor what "deceitful and seditious" writers (the terms he used to refer to several of us) were publishing. Then he would start censoring lines and even entire texts. Most of the time, the author, artist, or poet was put in jail. Totalitarian regimes do not tolerate the individual to be himself, and if someone attempted to do so—to be himself—he simply had to pay the price.

Did you encounter similar problems in the countries where you worked later? Can your writings circulate freely in the Arab world today?
No, never. I first worked, wrote, and published in Beirut in the early Seventies, at the time I was living there. Of the Arab capitals, Beirut is the one that offered Arab writers a definite freedom, and all of them benefited from it to an extreme degree. Its cultural life was so rich that it would be difficult to sum it up in a few pages. (I'm now working on a book on cities and writing.) Most of my books were published in Beirut. I worked for the Lebanese press and published pieces in all of the major periodicals in the cultural field. Strangely and most paradoxically, I navigated between different currents, publishing at times in the well-known right-wing paper al-Nahar or in a liberal review like Mawâqif, which was run by the great poet Adonis, and at other times in the Communist Party's review al-Tarîq. I wrote whatever came into my head and I expressed what I was feeling. I published my first book, a collection of short stories, in Beirut, as well as my last novel. For Beirut, like Rabat where I also lived, permits the most complete, beautiful, and courageous expression in the world

Has exile altered your way of writing and thinking about your work?
Human beings are born to themselves in exile. And writers are especially solitary. There are writers who monopolize every one's attention and leave nothing to other writers. People call this arrogant, but I maintain that it's a kind of reserve and modesty arising from the intense light which scatters the seeds of creativity. Writing must bring you nearer to the Other, while the writer has to remain totally elusive. After Beirut, I came to Paris. I spoke about Paris in an interview broadcast several times by al-Jazira television, which beams from Qatar. Paris has placed me in a halfway situation. It has enriched my language, my stories, my analyses, and my characters. I've learned a lot about myself here, I've found myself developing a sense of mockery, kindness, laughter, playfulness, courage, enthusiasm, a feel for existence. My style has became more polished, warmer and less provocative. In spite of the difficulty I encounter in communicating in French, I face the world here, alone and in a new way. It's as if language was no longer limited to syntax and direct exchanges. In my special situation, language is an opening on life and the world, a resistance to ugliness, and an effort to question more searchingly. No doubt I'm lucky, very happy here, waiting to find new models for my fictional characters, and in my hands they'll appear to know that they're breathing the free and bracing French air.

What do you think of the way the West regards the Arab world? Are there elements in Western culture that you find useful, for example in your struggle for women's rights?
I've already answered that question partly and I believe that I've made my position clear. The struggle for women's rights, for example, is not an area I've been active in; I haven't joined any associations of that type. My struggle (to use a word I don't particularly like) is to appeal through writing for the world to become the common property of all human beings of all races, all ethnic groups, all colors. Neither the West nor the East has invented the truth. So how can you expect me, an Iraqi, whose country is being subjected to destruction and to massacres, to trust Westerners–Americans–and to accept that they’re the only ones on Earth and in the universe to possess the truth, when they don't take a step toward my culture, my existence, my language? We live on the same planet and we share the same fate. We are therefore condemned to dialoging, to getting along with each other. Creativity is one of the ways we have to get to know other people, instead of crushing them, annihilating them, and using every pretext to show contempt for them. This is why I appreciate your decision to interview an Iraqi woman writer. Through your review and the International Writers' Parliament, writers, I'm certain, will succeed in accomplishing things by condemning, protesting repression and injustice. I hope that together we'll find a way of warding off the death and injustice that rain down on ancient cities, cities that are dying amid universal indifference.

Would you say that women are less likely than men to let themselves be indoctrinated into a political party and to submit to being cast into a reductive role?
I'm neither a theoretician nor a sociologist, and I'm definitely not attracted to the feminist theories put forward by the French or American groups who developed feminist criticism and who, under the sheltering sky of radicalism, occasionally yield to simplifications and varieties of extremism in a single area, the body–though the body is certainly important and essential. The debate over this issue hasn't ended and won't end in the foreseeable future. I'm not in a position to make any definitive judgments on the question of whether or not women are easily persuaded to become militants, or whether in the future they'll accept a party line to the extent of limiting their own independence.

I know that in Africa, Asia, Latin America and parts of Europe like Spain, Portugal, and Greece, women suffer from oppression, poverty, repression, just as men do, but I also know that women mustn't reject alliances with men. These alliances are vital, especially if they want to carry on their revolutionary and humanist struggle. Neither Socialism nor Marxism, nor Left nor Right, nor anarchism nor radical feminist movements, nor the centrality of the female condition in relation to the centrality of the male condition, makes it possible to propel the condition of women to the forefront in the near future. All of these antagonisms, concepts, and movements are useful and splendid seen from a certain angle, but they're only a beginning. There’s a crying need for research and serious debate within the context of new strategies which we human beings, men and women, need to invent or discover. We need to engage in a long, arduous quest to learn the words of rebellion and be able to reread the history of oppression—of women mainly, but also of men—for, when all is said and done, what women experience isn’t biologically, or racially, or ethnically separate, for they do not live in isolation. What poisons their life is in the end what poisons the life of their mates, of men, and consequently poisons everything close to us–nature, existence, and life.

You seem to be saying that the contemporary Arab world, especially Iraq, suffers from a glut of doctrines and ideologies, to which it has been successively subjected. Aside from Iraq's particular situation due to the embargo, how can this situation change, in your opinion? Can writers do something to make things move?
We haven't yet entered the age when ideology is dead and buried. We thought we had entered it at the famous congress of 1955 whose participants proclaimed the end of the era of ideologies. But the corpse of ideology was been scattered over the world, and the Arab countries received their portion of it, with their organizations, their parties which grew like mushrooms, their doctrines, political and other, like Marxism, Objectivism, phenomenology, etc., not to mention Socialism, capitalism, liberalism, progressivism, fascism, Nazism. Nor were they strangers to the doctrines shaped by key figures such as Mao, Franco, Guevara, Stalin, Nasser, Trotsky, Lenin, and their progeny. But if you examine the chronological succession of these ideologies in the Third World since the middle of the last century, you'll find that they flourished and diversified at different times. Push this analysis a little further, however, and you'll get nowhere, for today everything seems vague and catastrophic. Under the yoke of these ideologies great figures appeared, millions of people were killed, and the result was a horrific destruction. Proclaiming the slogans of Socialism and nationalism, military juntas seized power and the individual was crushed. Crowds were swept by a hysteria of revenge against opposition parties. This is what happened in my country split between two parties, the Baas Party and the Communist Party, which had joined the opposition.

The struggle against the West, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the successive Arab-Israeli wars, the civil wars like the ones in Lebanon and later in Algeria, the Islamic revolution in Iran and the appearance of Islamic fundamentalism, as it was called, the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq, all these events to which we must add the throttling of human rights by these regimes, the advent of the United Sates as a supreme power in a centralized world which no longer tolerates autonomy... What can the writer do who is alone and isolated either as a consequence of a personal decision, or because of being in exile or being jailed in his own homeland? How can I, an Iraqi who sees American and British planes bombing my country every day on TV, how can I not condemn and revile, and then write, protest, demonstrate with others to demand an end to the massacre and the destruction of one of the oldest lands in the world? What weight do all the books on Earth have compared to the groans of the people in Iraq, Palestine, and Bosnia?

You say that you now reject the concept of integration. Do you totally exclude the possibility of positive forms of integration, even for a writer determined to preserve her independence?
I don't reject integration from a racist or ethnic position. I'm attached to my situation, which I've described as "spontaneous" or "unwilled." I have a good rapport with people here in Paris. I confront them on the level of language, their language, but we always understand each other. Language is not always the best means we humans have for getting to know each other, and language alone doesn't suffice to communicate what you desire or love. I live here in a state of creative vitality that I haven't experienced in any other capital where I spoke the language, and that is something truly surprising.

For young people of both sexes integration may be a satisfactory means of preventing the self from being wounded and disintegrating and for shielding it from external threats. But at my age, I feel both contained by and excluded from integration. Even before I left my own country, Iraq, I had an anarchistic streak and a boundless will to rebel. I chose to be a writer on the fringe, but I'm not marginal. I feel at one with those in whose midst I work, even though I don't speak French, and I have friends who are precious to me and important in my life.

French law grants a significant support to foreigners like myself, in terms of social security and health care. It's a fair and humane law. Laws mean a great deal to me as an immigrant, laws having to do with nationality, work, unemployment. But they're extended to me as an Iraqi citizen possessing a residence permit and enjoying numerous benefits and the protection of my freedom and honor, and I owe it to myself to respect those laws.

Translated from the French by Michael Taylor  
© International Parliament of Writers