Author discusses writing amid Arab restrictions, expectations

Anouar Benmalek considers himself both Arab and non-Arab. The novelist, poet, journalist and mathematician explained this duality, and the mental shifts it requires, at a Scripps College talk on Monday.

He pens books in his native French, the latest of which is called Abduction, making him the literary heir of humanists like Albert Camus. But though he has lived in France since 1992, the background of Mr. Benmalek, the son of an Algerian father and a Moroccan mother, is inarguably Arab.

As such, he feels suddenly and protectively Arab when someone speaks pejoratively of the culture. Among the Arabs of Algeria and beyond, though, in countries infected by “the poison of purity” engendered by fundamentalist Islam, the writer is an outsider by the very nature of his avocation.

In his homeland, dissent or even the questioning of religious or governmental precepts is anathema. Writing is viewed with suspicion because, according to Mr. Benmalek, the Arab is “supposed to be full to the brim of ethnic and religious identity.”

“A writer of Algerian descent is assigned a box from which he is not supposed to escape on pain of ridicule and accusations of treason,” he said.

He should know. When an Arab reviewer decided Mr. Benmalek’s 2006 Oh, Maria (a novel examining the persecution of Muslims in 17th century Spain) was “a frenzied attack on the Muslim world,” the intolerance snowballed until the very lives of the author and his family were in danger. With the help of “Mr. Google,” the Internet, world of the novel’s alleged blasphemy spread across the Middle East and even among European Muslims. Several Islamic newspapers called for Mr. Benmalek’s death, eventually prompting him to relocate his family.

That came later, though.

Mr. Benmalek’s sense of isolation began early as he grew up with a multicultural family tree in a culture where “diversity is a handicap.” Along with his Morrocan mother, his grandmother was Swiss and had been a trapeze artist, to boot. He also counted Maruitanian black slaves among his ancestors.

He didn’t expect to become an author. Mr. Benmalek studied mathematics, a discipline that gave him a profound sense of peace. It was only when he fell for a girl with cultural pretensions that he dared to pick up a pen. He wrote poetry, because “you can’t seduce a girl with mathematics.” 

From that point, he became increasingly hooked on writing. In his talk, he quoted an Arabic saying. “Once you taste honey, you want to keep eating.”

From there, he began pursuing the dual paths of math and writing, eventually landing a gig as a newspaper columnist, chronicling the brief and tumultuous democratic period in Algeria from 1988 to 1991. Mr. Benmalek moved to France in 1992 amid general political violence and the growing persecution of journalists and writers.

He describes his exile in an essay called “Bitter Chronicles.” 

“I left, I returned. Several times. Between 2 massacres. Between 2 butcheries. Between 2 bouts of despair. Algeria began to escape me. My country frightened me more and more, horrified me too. I understood it less and less. I loved it as much as ever, even if, as was often, I hated it with a passion.”

While Mr. Benmalek has physically left the Arab-ruled world, it continues to follow him. The calls for his death spread from Algeria to Iraq, Saudia Arabia, Lebanon and Lemin. “Everywhere,” he said. They can still be found online. 

He was particularly struck by one article in which the writer wrote, “If I were president, I would have burned this renegade.” Ironically, the first chapter of his Oh, Maria begins with the burning of an Islamic victim of the Spanish church and state. 

Mr. Benmalek remains cautious because he doesn’t want his family to suffer any reprisals. Ultimately, though, the Islamic backlash has spurred him to become increasingly frank about subjects like the violence that prevails in Algeria and neighboring countries in the name of religious purity.

He has learned firsthand the truth of another Arabic proverb: “You die if you’re silent. You die if you speak out. You may as well speak and die.”

Razan Ahmed, a junior at Pomona College, was one of the students who took in Mr. Benmalek’s talk, and said she found it inspiring.

As long as their governments remain firmly tied to theology, Islamic countries will continue to experience violence and repression as people attempt to return to a mythical “golden age,” Mr. Benmalek said.

Imposing democratic ideals from the outside on places with no history of this kind of governance will not stop that tide, in his view. Even the introduction of technology like the web is not changing the philosophy of fundamental Islam, he notes. Instead, Fundamental movements are using digital technology to spread Byzantine beliefs, in a form of East-West cultural “schizophrenia.”

What may help is literature, with its way of expanding our understanding of others. Mr. Benmalek has no illusions that his work, or any other writing, will change the world quickly.

“I’m humble,” he said.

Mr. Benmalek may be humble, and he may be divided culturally. But he knows what his calling is.

“I have the misfortune to consider that literature is one of the most beautiful conquests of the human spirit.”

Pomona College junior Razan Ahmed, who has literary aspirations herself, tends to agree. She found the presentation inspiring.

“As a person born in Sudan who grew up in the US, there’s a lot of limbo as far as my identity,” Ms. Ahmed said. “And as someone who writes a lot, I find it very encouraging to hear that I don’t have to stick to my national identity.”

—Sarah Torribio


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