By Mustapha Hamil

Abdelkebir Khatibi This article discusses the problematic of identity in Maghrebian literature in French. Through a close analysis of Abdelkebir Khatibi's autobiography, La Memoire tatouee (1971), the author shows how Francophone literature of the Maghreb challenges the established Arabo-Islamic notion of a pure origin and a unified identity. He goes on to argue that the colonial experience has created a new relationship between the Self and the Other. Self-identification in terms of a rigid opposition to the Other (the West) complicates the emergence of a new postcolonial subjectivity liable to ovecome oppositional thought. La Memoire tatouee may be considered, according to the author, in terms of a postcolonial social and cultural project. In it Khatibi invites Arab societies to a "pensee-autre" [thinking otherwise] that challenges the cultural and ideological hegemony of the West as well as the monolithic Arabo-Islamic discourse on identity and difference.


Postcolonial theory in its English and Anglophone replications is dominated by such figures as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Stuart Hall, to cite but these. Writers as ideologically and artistically diverse as Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Albert Memmi, and Edouard Glissant dominate its French and Francophone ramification. In fact, one can easily trace the genealogy of both English and French branches of postcolonial theory to Fanon, and farther down to Hegel's master-slave dialectic. The allegories that permeate the postcolonial imaginary, such as those of Caliban and Prospero; Crusoe and Friday; Kurtz and "the heart of darkness" (or Tayeb Salih's inversion of the imperial adventure by taking it back to the "North"), are all variations on the same pattern. This is to say, in simple terms, that the same Manichean grammar and the same history of imperialism inform most of these theories of postcoloniality, no matter where or when they originate. In the present article, I propose to examine the issue of self-definition in the Maghrebian novel in French. Here I want to examine Abdelkebir Khatibi's La Memoire tatouee (1971) (1) one of the first Maghrebian autobiographies published in the wake of independence.

In Black Skin White Masks, Frantz Fanon argues that the colonized subject cannot make a meaning for himself; it is the meaning that is already there, pre-existing him that makes him. (2) Despite his noteworthy psycho-sociological study of the colonial context, Fanon overlooks the socio-cultural reality of the Maghreb. For during the colonial period, two distinct meanings--French (or Western) and Arabo-Berbero-Islamic--seemed to shape the colonized subject's vision of himself and of the Other, and out of which he had to extract a meaning that he would recognize as his.

Khatibi opens his autobiography with a reference to the dechirure nominale: "Born the day of Eid el-Kebir [the feast known as "Greater Bairam"] my name suggests a millenary rite, and it occurs to me, for the occasion, to imagine Abraham's act of sacrificing his son" (9). Born the day of a religious festivity, the narrator feels his whole being already played out-or sacrificed, so to speak--on the altar of the sacred Word. In other words, to be born during the festive day of Eid El-Kebir and to be named after it--Abdelkebir means 'servant of the Almighty'--establishes a definite affiliation, in his stead, to a genealogy of Names that glorifies God's oneness and preeminence. To be born, then, in the middle of the Abrahamic dream represents, as it were, a re-enactment of Abraham's unfinished act of sacrifice and a perpetuation of a stable religious order of being. In the Quran, Abraham holds a prominent status as the Father of all prophets and religions, and thus symbolizes the embodiment, par excellence, of the notion of a foundational origin, immutable and divine, from which all historical temporalities originate. It is not, therefore, fortuitous that Khatibi chooses to begin his autobiography by a reference to his birthday in the one-page Preface. The Preface, which dwells on the notion of origin (asl) becomes the veritable beginning of the autobiography. By turning the idea of origin into a simple textual beginning, Khatibi releases his autobiography from the sovereignty of the divine, since, as Edward Said argues, origins are "divine, mythical and privileged," while beginnings are "secular, humanly produced, and ceaselessly re-examined." (3) By way of such a textual negotiation, Khatibi disrupts the theological order of the Name and of its logos, long before his autobiographical narrative has begun.

Contrary to such classic autobiographies in Arabic as Taha Hussein's Al-Ayyam, in three volumes (1929-1967), or Abdelmejid Ben Jelloun's Fi at-Tufulah (1957), where Hussein and Ben Jelloun hardly make any reference to world events, Khatibi alludes in the Preface to the political and psychological effects of WWII on foreign lands like Morocco. In fact, the narrator's childhood coincides with WWII: "I was born with WWII, I also grew up under its shadow.... International history entered my childhood through the voice of the sinister dictator" (9). One may read in this coincidence (of historical events) how theological and man-made histories--origin and beginning--can occur within the same space and mingle within the same consciousness. In addition, these two histories are informed by two different conceptions of time: Eid el-Kebir is ritualistic, recurrent, and therefore cyclical, whereas WWII belongs to a linear historical succession. Being concurrently affected by the metaphysical absolutism of the past and the historical relativism of the present, the narrator/author will seek to disrupt both the notion of origin as totality and the historicist idea of time as an ordered whole.

Reading thus the Preface against the sub-title of the book, "Autobiographie d'un decolonise," [Autobiography of a Decolonized Person] informs us on Khatibi's intellectual and cultural project in the autobiography. As far as the process of decolonization is concerned, his intervention in Maghrebian cultural politics implies more than just a frantic Fanonian call for 'counter-violence,' or a desperate call for some sort of cultural essentialism or romanticism in the manner of Senghor's Negritude. Indeed, Khatibi invites Arab intellectuals and writers to a double critique of both the Orient and the West:

Et si parfois l'Occident triomphant chantait sa deperdition
nietzscheenne, qu'en etait-il de moi et de ma culture?
[...] Aimer l'autre c'est parler le lieu perdu de la
memoire, et mon insurrection qui, dans un premier temps,
n'etait qu'une histoire imposee, se perpetue en ressemblance
acceptee, parce que l'Occident est une partie de
moi, que je ne peux nier que dans la mesure ou je lutte
contre tousles occidents et orients qui m'oppriment ou
me desenchantent. (105-06)

[And if the triumphant Occident (West) was singing its
Nietzschean loss, what about myself and my culture?
[...] To love the Other is to speak of the lost space of
memory, and my insurrection which in an earlier time
was nothing but a history imposed on me, now perpetuates
itself in an acknowledged resemblance, for the
Occident is part of me, a part that I can only deny insofar
as I resist all the 'Occidents' and all the 'Orients' that
oppress and disenchant me.]

'Double critique,' as Khatibi defines it more extensively in Maghreb pluriel, (4) may be described as a double negative hermeneutic. First, it calls for a demystification of Western and Arabo-Islamic 'metaphysical logo-centrism. Second, it seeks to deconstruct the structural cohesion of the Western episteme in its different imperialist and ethnocentric practices. In other words, not only do Arab intellectuals need to disrupt what Abdullah Laroui qualifies as the magical and mythical view of origin, they also need to resist and, ultimately dismantle the discursive violence inherent in all forms of Western politics of representation. For Khatibi, postcolonial reality requires a double resistance to all the Occidents and Orients that alienate and subjugate the postcolonial subject. Viewed against the theoretical background of postcolonial studies, 'double critique' points to the possibility of redeeming postcolonial history from its interminable oppositional thinking by shifting the postcolonial subject's fixation on the Other/West to an inward interrogation of his political and ideological self-colonization and self-victimization. Throughout his work, Khatibi interrogates the notion of alterity, and refuses to be ensnared by any form of cultural or religious essentialism. Hence his insistence on opposing all forms of dual thinking in favor of a "pensee-autre" (5) [thinking otherwise] that targets the stability of the Cartesian self, as well as the authority of the metaphysical foundations upon which the Arabo-Islamic self is conventionally constructed. All modes of essentialist and/or oppositional thinking need to be interrogated, and eventually discarded. Inspired by Derrida's deconstructionism, "pensee-autre" invites suspicion, rather than blind acceptance of such hegemonic notions as the Western unitary self and the Arabo-Islamic vision of a pure origin.

Khatibi's invocation of origin in La Memoire tatouee does not therefore intend to fix that origin in an eternal time, but rather to turn it into one beginning among other beginnings. Being a writer without boundaries, the disruption of origin liberates his discourse and imagination from any cultural and ideological affiliation to any established construct of identity. Such strategic interference with the notion of origin constitutes a preliminary phase in the (re)construction of identity beyond dichotomized patterns of self-definition. In Maghrebian literature in French, the dislocation of origins, or the revolt against the figure of the Father as in Driss Chraibi's Le Passe simple (1954) or Rachid Boudjedra's La Repudiation (1969), becomes possible only after the displacement of the sacred sign; that is, after God's death: "Is our childhood's God dead, a hundred times dead, thrown away on the rocks?" asks Khatibi's narrator in La Memoire tatouee (46). Such a philosophical inquiry does not involve a denial of God per se, but rather the inscription in the autobiography of a post-Nietzschean vision of the Self. In fact, in all his fictional and theoretical works, Khatibi entertains a tactical relationship with the Arabo-Islamic tradition, namely the Quran and the Hadiths. In La Memoire tatouee, for example, he incorporates the Quranic text in two different ways. First, he recognizes the primacy of the sacred scriptures in his early socialization: "Tree of my childhood, the Quran dominated my speech, while the school was a library without a Book" (55). Second, the Quranic word undergoes a radical transformation as it enters into direct contention with the French word over theological and philosophical definitions of Being. As a Muslim subject in immediate interaction with Western modes of thought, the author/narrator becomes aware of the possibility to be the subject of his own discourse: "The Quranic parable ... figures identity's memory that knowledge can redouble in a sort of contemporary rhetoric: Our autobiography" (183). The project of writing an autobiography suggests, as it were, the existence of other alternatives to construct a new identity that does not necessarily subscribe to the idea of the unified subject(ivity) or to the notion of a foundational origin. Such an autobiographical project appears at once subversive and innovative. It is subversive because it challenges the idea of the metaphysical unity of the subject, and the transcendental Logos, be it Western or non-Western. It is also innovative in that it proposes a construction of identity that complements the dogmatic discourse of religion without however rejecting its universal principles altogether.

Throughout the autobiography, Khatibi appropriates his own voice through various ironic and parodic flirtations with the religious sign. Irony and parody are variously deployed in the text as strategic tropes that allow him to address both French and Arabo-Islamic cultures from within, while still maintaining some challenge to their homogenizing discourses. During his French schooling in Casablanca, the narrator deliberately imitates, parodies and subverts great French writers: "J'avais vire vers la parodie que je croyais decolonisante" [I turned to parody which I believed to be decolonizing] (85). Subversion does not concern French culture only. In fact, the narrator also targets the absolutes of language and religion that constitute his Arabo-Islamic identity. The Quran, for example, maintains that a man may wish to marry one, two, three, or four women. In La Memoire tatouee, the narrator rejects this precept by reversing it: "Do not alter your women, we shall be grateful to your undulation, thus changes the world" (71). While God promises virgin houris to His believers, the narrator looks at his French female teachers as vicious houris deliberately arousing the young pupils' sexual curiosity (54). Alongside God's Words, Khatibi evokes popular lore and superstition: "Besides the Quran, there was the spell and magic of women" (55). The narrator valorizes the feminine sign of tattooing as a cultural practice that helps him safeguard (his) memory against disintegration. The title, La Memoire tatouee, reinforces the primacy of this corporeal writing as a permanent signifier in the construction of Maghrebian identity. (6) Such discursive rearrangements, among many others in the autobiography, aim at disrupting the hegemonic system of signification that informs Arabo-Islamic patriarchal discourse on identity. One must recall, however, that Khatibi's intellectual project inscribes a double interrogation of the political and cultural reification of the past, either in official or religious discourses. Not only does he object to the vision of the past, especially in the context of Maghrebian cultural identity, as an immutable foundational structure, he also suspects any ideological attempt to repudiate this past in the name of some sort of de-historicized and decontextualized cultural identity.

Khatibi summarizes the linguistic plurality in the Maghreb through a reference to his own schooling: "At school, a secular teaching (was) imposed on my religion; I became triglote, reading French without understanding it, playing with a few words of written Arabic, and speaking the dialect as an everyday language" (52). In this state of linguistic heterogeneity, two adverse processes enter into competition: the colonization of the child's mind, on the one hand, and, on the other, the assertion of popular and oral culture: "While the child's mind was being colonized, his heart was playing instead with the talismans" (57). While at home he feels protected by a plethora of great Arabo-Islamic heroes and saints, preserved and transmitted to him by his mother, at school he discovers how his entire past and culture are reduced to a shameful panorama of "chaos"--dethroned monarchs, tribal anarchy, political disorder, and religious obscurantism. Moreover, his French teachers try to make him understand why the occupation of his country has no political or economic objectives, but rather a humanist mission intended to save his people from darkness and ignorance: "Surprised by this disorder, the colonial Occident decided to intervene for the sake of everybody. Alleluia the colonization!" (59). Even the French textbooks that he reads depict his culture in terms of a "cheerful piece of folklore," worth a special exhibition in a French museum (57). Khatibi shows how the colonialist education--with its attendant class and ethnic discrimination--affects the consciousness of the natives, especially writers like himself:

We well know the colonial imagination: sand over the culture
of the colonized people. In discovering their alienation
such people will err, distraught, in the crushed space of their
history. (44)

Strongly convinced of the legitimacy of their colonialist mission, the French imposed their language and culture as the only language of civilization. Their objective was, as Laroui argues, "to deprive the Moroccan of his religion, language and historic heritage, so producing a man free from culture, who would then be civilized." (7) Though Khatibi's autobiography reduces its references to the French colonials to a bare minimum--a strategy to turn their spatial domination into a textual subjugation--one can still have some sense of how they view the natives' culture:

Well! The Arabs like to look at roses made of paper, or of
plastic; nature has slipped through their fingers, they
stagnate, intoxicated by tea and absinthe. And to hide
their destitution, they fornicate all day long. Rational gardens
must be created, geometrical cities, a booming economy,
earthly Paradises must be created. God is dead; long
live the colonizer! (42-43)

Reading this passage, one cannot fail to discern Khatibi's awareness of the Orientalist tradition to which he is ironically alluding. (8) The natives' lack of romantic sensibility, their exorbitant sexuality and historical stagnation just before reaching civility belong to a large Orientalist constellation of stereotypical tropes and representations, and which one can still encounter even today in Western media coverage, tourist brochures, and 'area studies' introductions to the Arab world.

In order to preserve their moral and cultural superiority among the natives, the French divided the Moroccan city into the nouvelle cite, reserved for the settlers, and the medina, where the natives are locked up behind walls. This topographical organization of the colonial space reflects one of the colonizer's strategies to obliterate the native, as a person and as a presence, from colonial conscience. The ideology behind the Cartesian rationalization of the Moroccan space and imagination serves--besides better control and containment of the natives--to legitimate spatial and theoretical domination. The opposition between the European city and the medina is based on differences in race, language, cultural values, and modes of production. Occupying a spatial exteriority that corroborates their cultural difference, the natives become a mirror on which the French project, allegrement, their fantasies, anxieties, and fear. Khatibi's ironic summary of the colonial imagination points to the illusion behind the French anthropological patterns of self-identification, since these patterns remain inherently predicated on the presence--though invisible--of the natives. The splitting of the colonial subject on the screen that the native holds for him bears witness not only to the limits of his essentializing categorizations--as fostered in/by language and the idea of the autonomous (Western) subject--but also attests to the impossibility of effacing the presence of the Other that haunts his conscience and text.

In his study of the colonial context in The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes that "the two zones [of the colonial city] are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity." (9) However deep Fanon's insight into the Maghrebian colonial reality is, his Hegelian vision for a human reality in-itself-for-itself is undermined by his view of the Manichean structure of colonial consciousness and its non-dialectical division. (10) The two halves of the Maghrebian city seem to follow, in Fanon's sociodiagnostic psychiatry of the colonial space, two self-determining temporal trajectories. Fanon fails to notice how the natives, despite their spatial confinement, have always managed to transgress, in ways both manifest and latent, the forbidden zones of the nouvelle cite and, thus, to influence the historical and moral authority of the French themselves. In fact, France's partition of space into two distinct spheres has ironically jeopardized the whole colonial project in the Maghreb. In his article, "The Colonial Labyrinth," Khatibi succinctly sums up this paradox:

Marechal Lyautey [the architect of the French domestication
of Morocco] militarily surrounded the medina to
break up its anarchic proliferation and its apparent illogicality
[...] (he) thought he could frame it inside its walls
and gates. But the whole space became "mural," riddled
with holes of intense life, silence, humiliation, anger,
boots, and grenade. (11)

In Practices of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau illustrates how, in the face of the grid of "discipline," "an entire society resists being reduced to it ... popular procedures (also "minuscule" and quotidian) manipulate the mechanism of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them." (12) In La Memoire tatouee, the idea of popular resistance to the French policy of zoning is first introduced, though on symbolic plane, in the legendary figure of Aisha Kendisha, who is at once a seductive woman and a destructive ogress. (13) This mythical figure embodies in the autobiography a textual representation of that otherness which is at once an object of desire and fear. Occupying a shifting limit between reality and imagination, Aisha Kendisha symbolizes the ambivalent line of demarcation between identification and difference. As a legendary woman, she epitomizes indigenous imagination and mysteries over which the colonizer has no control. Interestingly enough, the narrator's mother is herself called Aisha. The interchangeability of the two figures associates the mother with popular resistance: "The counter-violence reorganized our anger. Invincible, the militant would dynamite, bombard, kill and then disappear inside a well. The women maintained the enigmatic power of the talisman.... The labyrinth of the streets surrendered once more to a feminine protection" (95). Protected by the invisible powers of its women, the medina--with its multifarious Aishas--has always defied the French systems of codification and pacification. The inability to navigate through its labyrinthine space has as a consequence created a new form of spatial imprisonment. In their attempt to preserve their moral authority and cultural difference among the natives, the French colons end up being incarcerated within the boundaries of their Cartesian rationalization of the colonial space. In their mutual distancing, both the natives and the colonizers are subjected in varying degrees to the same effect of zoning: self-definition in opposition to the Other.

Thus the partition of Maghrebian space and imagination, the disruption of local culture, and the imposition of an alien culture and language have all combined to create new forms of looking at the self and the Other. No doubt, the French school represents a significant transformation of the cultural encounter between France and the natives. Despite its divide-and-rule ideology, the French school has always functioned as the location where the frontiers that link and separate the medina and the European city, and differences between colonized and colonizer are no longer tenable. Like in most Maghrebian novels in French, the narrator's experience of the French school in La Memoire tatouee reflects a tension between a fear of losing one's identity and a desire to know the Other. Fascinated by the Occident, he is first tempted to dissociate himself from his cultural "difference," since, as he puts it, "through Corneille I will be admitted into the eternity of the Other. The Occident is offering us its paradises" (84). Placing himself thus under the gaze of his colonizer, he unconsciously allows the circle of projection and reflection to close on him. As Frantz Fanon puts it in Black Skin, White Masks:

Every colonized people--in other words, every people in
whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the
death and burial of its local cultural originality--finds
itself face to face with the language of the civilizing
nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The
colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion
to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards.
He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his
jungle. (14)

The irony of this situation, at least in the Maghrebian context, is that the msid (Quranic school) usually precedes the French school, where the whole business of "whitening" takes place. This means that long before learning the French language the Maghrebian child has already developed a clear sense of his/her identity and of the differentiation between Muslims and non-Muslims. No doubt, France's educational policies in North Africa were informed by a colonialist ideology whose ultimate objective is the preservation and consolidation of pre-existing social and economic inequalities. Georges Hardy, who took over the general direction of public education and fine arts in Morocco in 1920, maintains in his reports that the integration of the natives into French culture through education is a "bad utopia." He overtly expressed his fear that any alteration in traditional social organization of the natives would eventually jeopardize France's primary goal to maintain people and objects in their customary places. Hardy concludes one of his reports to France's Parliament with the following recommendations: "We must not think of liberating the Moroccan citizen, or the slave, or the woman. Once you become familiar with the Moroccan context you will be convinced that these ideas (of liberation), once applied here, will turn into uncontrollable threats." (15) Implicit in Hardy's recommendation is an ethnocentrism that cannot sustain its claims: Hardy, like all other colonial officials, (16) wants to preserve France's cultural and moral supremacy among the natives. Yet the way he intends to do so betrays his fear of the natives' ability to turn Western ideals against France itself. In his first novel in French, Le Passe simple, for example, Driss Chraibi vehemently denounces the incompatibility of the grand narrative of the French Revolution within a colonial context: "I have committed myself to your way of life, gentlemen.... Consequently if I say: 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: a slogan as rusty as ours is,' you will no doubt understand me. Nevertheless, as I go along, I still dare to hope that those words will be cleansed and refurbished, regaining their impact and the seductive power that my books communicated to me." (17)

The adoption of the French language as a medium of self-expression by native writers allows them, therefore, to denounce in one fell swoop France's colonialist projects in the Maghreb as well as those ambient elements of their own culture that are either 'taboos,' or so disturbing to the political or theological orders that they must remain in the dark. (18) French functions in the Maghrebian novel as a neutral language through which writers seek to construct new identities out of the debris of colonialist and nationalist discourses. This does not imply that Francophone writers disparage their mother languages and the cultures they embody. On the contrary, as Khatibi puts it, the mother-language--because it is not codified--"maintains the memory of the story, and its genealogical primacy." (19) On a different level, the French language represents, as in the case of other Francophone writers like Assia Djebar and Mohamed Khair-Eddine, a medium that enables the Francophone writer to come to terms with the impossibility of writing his or her mother-language. The Maghrebian text becomes, then, a bilingual space wherein the writer exerts the faculty to see, to hear, and to write double. (20) Khatibi defines this faculty in terms of a "scenography of the double and the palimpsest;" (21) that is, a word is always/already composite. For him, the bilingual writer's prime objective is to give voice to the intention of the mother-language, not as a mechanical reproduction, but as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself. To write in French for an Arab or a Berber is, therefore, to write in more than one language at the same time. Such being the case, both Arabic and French are betrayed during the act of writing; both of them verge on linguistic "madness." Linguistic madness, however, is not fundamentally prejudicial, and it does not even have to stimulate incoherent modes of narrative and disjointed subjectivities, for only in the ironic freedom of linguistic madness can the true bilingual actually write. (22) In Khatibi's Amour bilingue (1983), the fusion of Arabic and French becomes possible only when the French language is itself estranged from its cultural background through a rather mystic union with the writer's native language. The subsequent exchange that takes place on the inter/intra plane of the text guarantees total liberation from all forms of cultural and ideological egocentrism. In fact, Maghrebian literature in French, whether that of the colonial or postcolonial period, presents a reaction against what Abdullah Laroui calls the "loss of the self in the absolutes of language, culture, and the saga of the past." (23) Writing in the language of the former colonizer represents for many writers a strategic depassement of oppositional thought that enforces the tyranny of fixed origins and identities.

The narrator's departure to Paris in La Memoire tatouee announces thus a new phase in his search for a synthesis to the I/Other--Orient/Occident--dialectic: "And the Occident remained a disguise to overcome" (113). Once in Europe, he chooses 'seduction' as a strategy to subdue the Other: "On your breast Occident, I delay the end of all ends. [...] I chose, it is evident, but not clear, your seduction [...]. What do I have to fear of your abduction, Occident?"(172). The feminization of the colonizer implies at once desire and fear: the desire to dominate the Other, and the fear to lose one's identity in that domination. Unlike Sa'ed's sexual adventures in Salih's Season of Migration to the North (1969), Khatibi admits that both the desiring subject and the desired object engage in the playfulness and ambivalence of seduction and deceit. Hence his decision to entertain with the Occident a relationship that involves disloyalty rather than total submission: "I tattoo on your sex, Occident, the graph of my disloyalty" (137). Two different things are implied in this confession. First, to appropriate the Other's body through the (ethno)graphic writing of tattooing preserves the subject's sovereignty. Second, the idea of disloyalty establishes Khatibi as a 'lover' on whom the West exerts but a provisional fascination. Far from being a Mecca where Maghrebian writers camp in order to cast off their native garbs and rehearse their endless grievances, Paris emerges here as a transitory phase and space in the long flight from what Khatibi calls "identite aveugle" [blind identity] and "difference sauvage" (24) [savage difference]. Contrary to Salih's hero, Mustafa Sa'ed, who leaves London and goes to die mysteriously in his Sudanese village, Khatibi's narrator leaves Paris in search of new insights into the problematic of identity and origin:

Farewell, the Left Bank and Paris of my adulthood!
Difference is a woman and savage difference is a latent
seduction. Good illusion is the return home! One never
returns home, one simply falls in the circle of one's
shadow. (143)

The narrator's decision to return back to his tribe and culture does not emphasize the primacy of some sort of immaculate cultural identity. In fact, Khatibi maintains that the history of the Maghreb is one of cultural hybridization. Celebration of linguistic and cultural plurality implicitly recognizes French culture as an integral layer grafted onto an already plural identity. Hence Khatibi's appeal for the "Grande Violence" that targets the foundational myth of the unitary self and the unsullied origin. Inspired by Derrida's deconstructionist critique of identity, Khatibi resists and ultimately rejects all forms and ideologies of cultural authenticity. In Lutteur de classe a la maniere Taoiste, he sums up his ideas as follows:

Everybody cherishes identity
Everybody searches for origin
And I am teaching orphan knowledge. (24)

In a world intent on refurbishing essentialist discourses on identity and origins, Khatibi is in favor of exilic knowledge. 'Orphanhood' implies more than just the loss of a biological father or mother (Memoire 14), but a systematic rejection of all forms of monolithic discourses on identity and difference. The figure of the orphan intellectual--one that epitomizes free thought and nomadism--inscribes in the text a discourse that subverts such rigid notions as the centered self, homeland, nationhood, and exile. For the orphan intellectual is par excellence an eternal nomad passenger in the lands of mortals.

Orphan thought allows Maghrebian writers in French to negotiate their way out of the established Arabo-Islamic theological and literary tradition. It also establishes a sufficient detachment from the dogmatism of Eurocentric thought and culture. Hence Maghrebian writers in French may be said to occupy an intellectual and cultural space whose 'Fathers' and 'Gods' have long been buried, or simply put to rest. Once one knows where s/he has buried his/her 'fathers' and 'gods,' the veneration, or else the defamation of their languages and heritage becomes a personal business. Given the crucial significance of the idea of origin to any understanding of Maghrebian literature in French, it is no surprise that Khatibi enunciates the polyphonic construct of Maghrebian identity in the title of his autobiography: La Memoire tatouee. Similar to other titles, Le Livre du sang (1979), Maghreb pluriel (1983), Amour bilingue (1983), Un Ete a Stockholm (1990), to cite but these, Khatbi's autobiography challenges the assumption of homogeneity embedded in conventional Arabo-Islamic discourses on identity.

Spatial and linguistic displacement of frontiers targets the ideologies that are based on historical closure. By liberating the Self from Western and non-Western notions of origin (existential, foundational), Khatibi casts Maghrebian writers in the role of transnational nomads whose postcolonial predicament is a permanent crossing and re-crossing of conventional boundaries and limits, whether those of language, religion, gender, or nationhood. In fact, most Maghrebian texts in French harbor a vision of the Maghrebian self as being decentered; a vision that banishes from its narrative address of postcolonial identity the fixation on a unified Self whose origin is inscribed in a foundational moment in the past.


(1) Abdelkebir Khatibi, La Memoire tatouee: autobiographie d'un colonise (Paris: Denoel, 1971). All translations are mine; all page numbers in my article refer to this edition.

(2) Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, Charles Lam Markmann, trans. (New York: Grove 1967) 134.

(3) Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Columbia U P, 1985) xiii.

(4) Abdelkebir Khatibi, Maghreb pluriel (Paris: Denoel, 1983). All subsequent translations from this edition are mine.

(5) Khatibi, Maghreb pluriel, 11-39.

(6) For a detailed discussion of the symbolic attributes of tattooing in popular culture of the Maghreb, see Malek Chebel, Le Corps dans la tradition au Maghreb (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1984).

(7) Abdullah Laroui, The History of the Maghreb." An Interpretative Essay, Ralph Manheim, trans. (New Jersey: Princeton U P, 1977) 343-44.

(8) Despite its reduced reference to the representation of North Africa in Orientalist texts, Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) remains the most valuable work in the field. For a detailed discussion of the image of Morocco in French literature, see the distinguished work by Abdeljelil Lahjomri, L'Image du Maroc dans la litterature francaise (de Loti a Montherlant), (Alger: SNED, 1973).

(9) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Constance Farrington, trans. (New York: Grove Press, 1963) 38-39.

(10) Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) 61.

(11) Abdelkebir Khatibi, "The Colonial Labyrinth," Yale French Studies 82.2 (1993): 5-6.

(12) Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Steven F. Rendall, trans. (Berkeley: U of California P, 1984) xiv.

(13) Aicha Kendisha would be a young and beautiful woman who, under the Portuguese occupation of Dukkala in Morocco (1450-57), would go out at night and seduce and then kill Portuguese soldiers to avenge the killing of one of her relatives. Popular imagination has retained of this story Aisha Kendisha's destructive powers. See Vincent Crapanzano, The Hamadsha: Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981) for a discussion of the spiritual significance of the figure of Aisha Kendisha for the Sufi sect of Hamadsha.

(14) Fanon, Black Skins White Masks, 18.

(15) Georges Hardy, "L'Ame marocaine d'apres la litterature francaise," Bulletin de l'enseignement public au Maroc 25 (novembre 1920): 54.

(16) See, for example, Paul Marty, Le Maroc de demain (Paris: Comite de l'Afrique francaise, 1925).

(17) Driss Chraibi, Le Passe simple (Paris: Denoel 1954) 119. My translation.

(18) French and Maghrebian criticism has deliberately insisted on the formal and stylistic features at the expense of the ideological and cultural implications of North African literature in French.

(19) Khatibi, Maghreb pluriel (Paris: Denoel 1983) 193-94.

(20) Reda Bensmaia, "Traduire ou 'blanchir': Amour bilingue d'Abdelkebir Khatibi," Imaginaires de l'autre: Khatibi ou la memoire litteraire (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1987) 140.

(21) Khatibi, Maghreb pluriel, 207.

(22) James McGuire, "Forked Tongues, Marginal Bodies: Writing as Translation in Khatibi," Research in African Literatures 23:1 (Spring 1992): 108.

(23) Abdullah Laroui, The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual: Traditionalism or Historicism, Diarmid Cammell, trans. (Berkeley: U of California P, 1976) 156.

(24) "Pour une veritable pensee de difference," Interview with Khatibi, Lamalif 85 (janvier 1977): 27-33.

(25) A. Khatibi, Lutteur de classe a la maniere taoiste (Paris: Sindbad, 1976) 14. My translation.

Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Jan. 2002



Abdelkebir Khatibi

Moroccan novelist, poet, essayist & sociologist Abdelkebir Khatibi passed away on Monday morning in Rabat. Khatibi was a major force in contemporary Moroccan writing. There are only two of his books available in English at this point, namely Love in Two Languages, translated by Richard Howard (& that one is in print probably only because Jacques Derrida’s book Monolingualism of the Other is a response to this essay by Khatibi) and The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy, co-edited with Mohammed Sijelnassi (a large, splendid book indeed, about what lies at the core of Arabic culture, art & poetics, namely its deep investment in calligraphy).

There is thus a dire need to translate some of the core works by this incontournable Maghrebian author: a good place to start would be the novels La mémoire tatouée (1971) and La Blessure du nom propre (1974), the collection of poems Le Lutteur de classe à la manière taoïste (1976), the essay “Le sionisme et la conscience malheureuse” (in: Vomito blanco, Collection 10/18, 1974), and the superb essay collection Maghreb pluriel (Denoël, 1983).

I have been reading Khatibi since I first came across his work in the early seventies: it is essential work for anyone wanting to understand not only contemporary Morocco, but also the whole of post-colonial North Africa. Writing about the Maghreb, I have several times quoted the following from Love in Two Languages:

Yes, I spoke, I grew up around the Only One and the Name, and the Book of my invisible god should have ended within me. Extravagant second thought that stays with me always. The idea imposes itself as I write it: every language should be bi-lingual! The asymmetry of body and language, of speech and writing — at the threshold of the untranslatable.

Which leads him to say in another essay that what would indeed be extraordinary would be to write “à plusieurs mains, à plusieurs langues dans un texte qui ne soit qu’une perpétuelle traduction” — to write with/in several languages a text that would be but a perpetual translation. A thought close to my heart & mind, one that I find essential for trying to think a nomadic or diasporic poetics commensurate with the complexicity of this, our twenty-first century world