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Zahia Rahmani on what it meant to write “Muslim”: A Novel.

Literary Hub

November 24, 2020, 10:00am

Next in our series of interviews with the shortlisted nominees for the 2020 Albertine Prize is Zahia Rahmani, author of “Muslim”: A Novel, (Deep Vellum) translated from the French by Matt Reeck.

Rahmani is a writer and art historian, in charge of global art history exhibitions at INHA. Born in Algeria to a Harki father and a Kabylian mother, she moved to France in 1967. “Muslim”: A Novel is the second volume of a trilogy that also includes Moze, published in 2002, and France, Story of a Childhood, published in 2006.

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Can you explain the meaning behind the quotation marks in your title: “Muslim”: A Novel?

They have a double meaning. It was important for me to distinguish the figure of the “Muslim” as a singular contained entity, a bit as a concept. And the usage of the term in quotations also references the figure of the Muslim presented in Giorgio Agamben’s book, Remnants of Auschwitz, which appears in quotations at the beginning of the work. Then, the quotations disappear: this conceptual figure becomes a common name. What interested me there, was to work precisely at once on the distinction of the word “Muslim” as a concept, therefore with quotations, and at the same time, perhaps, why not, the possibility of a common noun.

You wrote your last novel, France: Story of Childhood as your mother was dying. Your father’s suicide is at the heart of Moze. Is confronting death one of the driving forces behind your writing?

Well, I would say that the difficulty of life sometimes confronts you with death. I have already lost three brothers, a father and a mother. And a sister, who died before I was born. It’s true that, if any moment in life is difficult, it’s the disappearance of those who are close. I like lightness, but I can’t deny that the dead who surround me hold me to a certain ethic. As a result, I cannot imagine literature other than as a rarified experience at the height of something happening. This affirms that, perhaps, the death of my father is an event; but the place that I give to my mother in France: Story of Childhood—that comes after the story that I wrote on the death of my father (Moze)—, is also a very specific place, linked to an immense respect that I had for her culture and her language, and I make an event out of that as well.

My father committed suicide November 11, 1991. It’s clear that I was deeply affected by the gesture, which was an immensely powerful gesture, at one imposing a legitimacy but above all which provoked in you an ethic of the point of view of literature. When your father commits suicide on November 11 (Armistice Day), in France, when he goes to salute the monument to those lost in war in your village and afterwards drowns himself, you are at some point obligated to ask yourself what process led him to do this, and at a point, I needed to engage in a sort of introspection to understand, even though I was in a black hole of History. The history of the Algerian War, I needed to teach it to myself beginning from a gesture that was almost an erasure. When he killed himself, my father, in a certain way, radiated his story, and he wasn’t the one who could tell it to me… I had to do it with the death of my own, but I also had to transmit to the living members of my family that which the dead and their own dead taught me. Literature, when it becomes a book, expands this family to include its readers.

In “Muslim”: A Novel, the story takes place in the present interjected by stories borrowed from the heroine’s childhood. But this present is strangely removed of any chronological reference. Can you comment on this choice?

“Muslim”: A Novel is first a story that conveys the figure of a pariah, who I name here “Muslim,” but who the era names “Muslim,” who may call themself “Muslim.” When you say that chronological markers seem absent, it is that I had the desire to make out of this banished figure a figure with a long history in the History of Mankind, who is accustomed to a sort of repetition and that which is perennial. She is constantly present in the texts inherited from Ancient Greece, the figure of Antigone comes to mind of course. It was also my desire to inscribe this contemporary being into a heritage. The main character in “Muslim”: A Novel is a woman who, by her lineage, inherits the family identity. She inherits in in some ways by injunction: the world males her into the figure of a Muslim, but she herself never felt what would be, or what one would call, a Muslim identity, or that today, in the 21st Century, we would need to say exactly what this identity is. She is seized by expectations that were constructed outside of her. It is a phenomenon that one can say has been repeated across groups throughout history, which has reached and affected a number of communities. Looking at, for a contemporary example, the figure of the Jewish pariah: we decided to categorize them as such, although it’s certain that a large number of people were part of this history only by association and not by practice, not necessarily a linguistic or cultural heritage. (The legal system is funny in doing this, inventing the concept of “going back generations.”) The new enemy, if the Muslim is the new enemy, is written in this history. My character never adhered to a religious practice in her own right, even if, by her name, by her family, she would have inherited a familiarity and a knowledge linked to Muslim culture, but by choice and by conviction, she is atheist. Except that contemporary world says “secular” even though it cannot conceive of the possibility that one can be part of a Muslim family and be atheist, it is incapable of understanding to a certain extent, that within the group of humans called “Muslim,” that people, I wouldn’t go as far to say emancipate themselves, but distinguish themselves, like in all families, by a non-acceptance of the religious practice. By her origins, she indexed, named a Muslim, and we as her to justify herself, to say how she is different from this community, which is seen today as dangerous and apparently at rick of disrupting a certain number of equilibriums.  This is the difficulty and the contradiction of the secular European world: it maintains Muslims and their descendants in a communitarian system all while demanding that they emancipate themselves.

My character is a feminine figure, I would say by default—I didn’t want to create a masculine figure. And, at the same time, she refuses that which makes her a woman, that is the say the possibility to perpetuate herself. She says at a certain moment that she does not have children; she will not have them; nothing will be born of her. In some ways she inherits this impossibility: if everything that makes up your identity is negative; how can your identity give life to a desire to perpetuate yourself? It is one of the major dramas of our time: that we inherit in the construction of the negative, notably from the media, acting as azimuth. Even me, as a completely secular person, I went through it in this way. I viewed myself as stigmatized, distinguished as Muslim and ultimately having only negative behind me as heritage.

“Muslim”: A Novel combines Eastern and Western tales, Biblical stories, and personal memories. What is the guiding principal that connects all these stories?

We could say that that it is history that creates the borders of texts, but, at the moment when these tests emerged, if they were born in one corner of the earth, maybe it was a place where the borders where not those that exist today.

And then what is an Eastern story? It’s something that we were taught as “Oriental” at a certain moment. But these stories were instituted by men and carried by the mobility of man, you can therefore completely find traces of them in the communities of Norther Europe simply through the history of migrations.

I was born in Northern Africa into a tradition where oral history is very important, but this North African society was also traversed by a multitude of communities who brought these stories into existence – whether that be the Jewish tradition, the Christian tradition, polytheism, the Vandals, the Byzantines… communities that had themselves been the recipients of parts of other cultures, for example Jewish communities who came to North Africa by way of Spain.

There were really very powerful migrations, a multitude of human communities stewed together, and it is this which, in my opinion, links all histories, it is the common thread between all the stories that we sometimes wish to separate. When individuals leave one region of the world, the West to go towards the East or the other way around, they bring with them everything that structured their community, and we know that as far as India, as far as China, as far as West Africa, as far as East Africa, human communities were displaced. In a way, the largest swaths of our histories have swallowed the smaller parts.

In the case of my character, history imposes a form of introspection on her. She understand that the world makes of her a Muslim because she inherited something cultural from her parents. But what culture, what Muslim identity? She tries to see how some part of her is Muslim. It’s the spelling of her name that puts her in this box of monotheism. “Rahmani” is written in the Hebrew tradition as “RHMN” which means “mercy.” Ultimately, everything is connected, at the beginning, there are the same peoples, the same region of the world, and nearly the same etymology, the same linguistic roots.

In regards to her personal experience of immigration and of the challenges posed by integration, do you think that American readers have more of a natural affinity with “Muslim”: A Novel than French readers?

I don’t think that French readers are less inclined to read this type of work than American readers per se. The question is not the reader but the society.

The major difference between the American model and the European model is that, in Europe, we always begin with the idea that there is a culture of origin, and that migrations are a recent phenomenon, contemporary, the most recently visible. In the United States, there is not really a people of origin, it’s a major difficulty, as the people of origin, the oldest at least, the Native Americans, were the subject of a genocide. And the individuals who appropriated the land of this country were for the most part from Europe. It is at this point that one must add that, from the perspective of the exploitation of the land, that one uprooted human beings from the beginning, Africans taken from their continent as slaves, as manual laborers at the beck and call of another. The contemporary history of America is a continuous flow of migrants.

I don’t at all trust the way that the figure of the Muslim has been distinguished by the politics of Bush and others, but is is difficult to read a schema constructing the figure of a Muslim pariah in the United States as it has been constructed in Europe across centuries. Effectively, I don’t discount that there have been violent attacks and cultural opposition, which make the question complicated at any given moment within our societies. It is also possible that American readers see the question of the presence of Muslims in their territory as a phenomenon from the European world although they had the World Trade Center.

In a secular country like France, we otherwise have a real difficulty with expressing ourselves through an etymology that contains religious elements. The American state did not create the same legal arsenal. If we look at the case of religion in the US: all beliefs, all practices are permitted. The French model, which calls itself secularist, is very different. For example, it says no distinction. Whether you are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or otherwise, we ask you not to distinguish yourself in the public space, which is to say that garments play a role. But it’s much more complicated than that because, in practice, there is another side to this question, the fact of colonial heritage. It’s much harsher towards the figure of Muslims from North Africa than towards Muslim figures from Senegal for example: where society perceives something of folklore as opposed to a religious identity model in the djellaba for example.

What is the book that opened the doors for you to writing?

William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury comes to mind. American literature left a significant impression on me. There is also Black Boy by Richard Wright… I would say both books in fact.

What Black Boy taught me is that I had a life in France that resembles that of a Black child. It was the first time a book said to me: you are not alone. But truly, when I read Black Boy and what the author wrote on the state of Mississippi, ready to spend a fortune to maintain the status quo, I had the impression that it was exactly the same colonial heritage, and that, in a certain way, my presence in France perpetuated it. I do not see in what way the French state has modified this heritage: I was a colonized person heir to colonialism and all the constructions that it had maintained. For me, therefore, this posed the question of my place in society.

The book that stupefied me as a literary object, and gave a new perspective to my life, was The Sound and the Fury. I ran and I think I am still running after this book. To read, and therefore to hear, the thoughts of someone mute, a young man silenced by trauma and unable to find the means of expressing himself in language, was incredible. Add to this the way that the chronology implodes within the text. This made for an extraordinary reading experience, truly physical. And what I find crazy in The Sound and the Fury is the way in which the author portrays an America immobilized by the violence of its history, in some ways foreign to a colonial heritage, at every intellectual level, and at the same time, it was easy for me to find parallels with the rural environment that surrounded me in the Oise. With this force that Faulkner had to make a stutter, the impossibility of speaking, into a bastard child. That is to say that there was something rotten in American society. The word is strong but I think that for Faulkner there was always this idea, that he takes on in a bizarre way, that America’s original sin was slavery. Every failure of the American experiment is linked to this illegitimacy: one cannot construct a new society on the destruction of another.

What is the best piece of literary advice that you have received?

I would say, as I learned from Erskine Caldwell, that you need to trim the fat from literature. This practice is the most joyful part of writing for me.

Who are the contemporary writers that you admire?

I would put John Maxwell Coetzee on top of the pile, I hate the term “admire.”

If you could make anyone read you book, who would it be?

Herman Melville. Maybe he would tell me at what point we went wrong for the world to be as closed off as it is today. He allows us to rediscover the immensity of space without borders, the utopia of Melville, the power of the whale’s cry.

What is one work of art, other than litterature (film, television, painting, a piece of music…) that you would want is the world was deserted?

When I saw Bed by Robert Rauschenberg for the first time, my life was transformed. I understood later on. It was for having seen this work that I came to the United States. It guided my life and my choices. For me it contained the entire cinema of my childhood, but also an entire part of the history of painting, and the history of what would become a minority, the Native American people, and their disappearance. Robert Rauschenberg, because of his Native American origins and his dyslexia, was the master of the reverse angle.

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