Moroccan-Belgian Writer Taha Adnan on Why He Stays Faithful to Arabic

Moroccan poet, short-story writer, and playwright Taha Adnan, in Belgium for more than 20 years, was recently in Kuwait to talk about language, literature, and literary community:

By Vittoria Volgare

Photo credit: Vittoria Volgare.

KUWAIT CITY – We can change many things, among them our haircut or our clothes, but not the language we use to write literature. This is the belief of Taha Adnan, a Belgian Moroccan writer who has spent more than twenty years living in Brussels, and who works for the Francophone Ministry of Education, but who continues to write his poems and books in Arabic.

Adnan was recently in Kuwait to represent Belgium during the celebration of the Francophone days and to commemorate the victims of the Brussels attacks of 22/3/16. On an invitation from the Belgian Embassy, Adnan appeared during a conference at the Union of Kuwaiti writers and at a cultural salon hosted by famous Kuwaiti writer Taleb Al Refai, where he explained his fidelity to Arabic.

“I arrived to Brussels from Marrakesh when I was 26, therefore I was already a semi-finished product, Made in Morocco,” Adnan said in describing himself. He saw it as inevitable for him to write in his mother tongue. He added that he can freely live this “Arabness,” his Arab and Moroccan identity, thanks to the multiculturality of Brussels:

It is a special place where there is no authority of language, but instead a certain language insecurity: there are the Francophones, the Flemish, the bilinguals, the presence of the European institutions and NATO, where the main language is English. It is a context where there is no linguistic supremacy; no one is sure of his language. I even have the impression that Arabic is one of the languages of Brussels.

According to the poet, his work can be considered both Arabic and Belgian literature. If Arabic comes natural to him, Adnan admits that in French he has to think and elaborate, a mental process that would directly kill poetry. Moreover, he associates French with the language of work.

“Luckily, to solve this problem we have translation. I write in Arabic and I leave the rest to the translator. If the work is well done, we will surely manage to reach the public.”

The importance of translation and the Arab responsibility

Photo credit: Vittoria Volgare.

Adnan surely attained his goal, with works translated into Spanish, French, English, and Italian. Translation, in fact, is a big issue for Arab authors. Being published in foreign languages opens doors of recognition.

“Unfortunately, not all the works that deserve to be translated reach this goal, and Arabs have a responsibility in this. Our national cultural institutions don’t make any effort to promote our literature. Therefore, Arabs should create a space of dialogue or a mechanism that encourages editing and translation, facilitating at the same time the choice for a foreign publisher,” Adnan added.

It is also necessary to multiply independent institutions that aim to select contemporary Arabic literature, Adnan said. This is what the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction, among others, has tried to do since its launch in 2007 in Abu Dhabi, actively encouraging the translation of shortlisted novels from all over the Arab world. Moreover, recognition from IPAF brings attention and novels associated with it increase their sale and notoriety.

Can Arabic literature written in Europe be considered also European? 

Adnan is mainly known for his poems, but he has also written short stories, articles published in various newspapers, and a theatre work “Bye Bye Gillo,” staged in different countries and languages giving voice to the situation of illegal immigrants in Europe. More recently, he published a collection of poems, Your Smile is More Beautiful Than the National Flag (Almutawassit Books, 2006), and has coordinated the publication of a pan-Arab-Belgian collection of short stories entitled This is Not a Suitcase. The title is a celebration of a work by the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte, but it also refers to the fact that Arab writers are capable of bringing their heritage wherever they go, of packing it in  the titular suitcase.

In this last work, 17 writers from Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Sudan — including Adnan himself –speak about a very multicultural Belgium, living between “Arabness” and “Belgitude,” a Belgian identity defined by what it’s not. In Belgium, a country with three official languages, the Francophone are not French, the Flemish are not Dutch, and Germanophones are not German; Belgians define themselves for their affiliation to a region, a city, or a language.

The way to manage this cultural complexity isn’t obvious, and this is when Belgitude unifies Belgians. This panorama becomes even more complex if we consider the large presence of people with foreign backgrounds, especially from Morocco. Coming from different countries, the authors of This is Not a Suitcase have chosen to live in Belgium for various reasons, but what they all have in common is that they never abandoned their mother tongue. They continue to produce an Arabic literature that Adnan considers also a European contemporary literature.

Some writers have emigrated because they chose so, others were forced to, fleeing their countries in search of safety and security. Their stories take place in numerous Belgian cities, such as Brussels, Bruges, Liege, Charleroi, Antwerp, Leuven and others; the themes vary from exile to racism, extremism, exclusion, and coexistence of cultures. The texts can be considered literature of migration, of exile, or of integration. It is a book, according to Adnan, whose aim it is to change prejudices against Arabs who are not the enemy but who, on the contrary, declare their appreciation for Belgium.

Literature produced by Arabs living in Europe already existed in France and Great Britain, but wasn’t known in Belgium. Adnan said he realized there was a void, even though many Arab intellectuals were meeting regularly in Brussels to discuss literature. This is when he thought of creating This is Not a Suitcase, which has recently been translated into French (La Croisee des Chemins). Previously, he had also overseen the publication of a book entitled Brussels the Moroccan (Editions Le Fennec), a collection of texts by Moroccan writers who live or have spent some time in the capital of Europe.

Read Taha Adnan’sYour Smile is Sweeter Than the National Flag,” translated by Robin Moger.

Vittoria Volgare is an Italian journalist and translator.  After having studied Arabic at the University of Napoli “L’Orientale”, she collaborated with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and for the Italian Press Agency ANSA. Since 2005, she lives in the Arab world (Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, Tripoli and now Kuwait).