Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Polymath By Moroccan Author Bensalem Himmich

I just finished reading the book, The Polymath, and I can honestly say that it is one of the best books I have ever read. Kudos to the translator, Roger Allen.

Bensalem Himmich, the author, won several awards for it, but a book of this quality should be more popular. Here is an article from al-Ahram weekly that ran just after Himmich won the Naguib Mahfouz prize in 2002. And then there is this short review that appeared in Newsweek.

Ibn Khaldun Resurrected

by Amina Elbendary

As Cairo celebrated the centenary of the Egyptian Museum last Wednesday, another celebration took place also on Tahrir Square; AUC celebrated Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's birthday (11 December) by announcing the winner of the seventh Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.

Never far from controversy, the prize this year went to Moroccan novelist Bensalem Himmich for his novel Al-Allama (The Polymath), originally published in Beirut in 1997 and in Rabat in 2001. An Egyptian edition is due shortly from Afaq Al-Kitaba series.

A historical novel, Al-Allama is a fictional biography of famous 14th century scholar Ibn Khaldun that reconstructs his personal and intellectual universe focusing on the years he spent in Egypt and Syria. Himmich has been a scholar of Ibn Khaldun for many years, having relied on his Tarikh (History) and Muqaddima (Prolegomena) while writing a dissertation on the late mediaeval period in the Maghrib which earned him a doctoral degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1986. He has also published a study on Ibn Khaldun. For this novel, Al- Allama, he relied on Ibn Khaldun's own Al-Ta'rif bi Ibn Khaldun wa Rihlatihi Sharqan wa Gharban (Presenting Ibn Khaldun and his Voyage in the East and the West) -- a semi-autobiographical work. Himmich is the author of seven other novels including Majnun Al-Hukm (Power Crazy) which won him the Naqid Award and which AUC Press will shortly publish in English. Himmich is currently professor of philosophy at Mohamed V University in Rabat, a consultant to the Moroccan Academy and vice-president of the Writers' Union.

Established in 1996, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature also includes the translation of the award-winning novel into English by the AUC Press. The award committee is made up of Ferial Ghazoul, professor of English and Comparative Literature at AUC, Ragaa El- Naqqash, writer and literary critic, Abdel-Moneim Tallima, professor of Arabic language and literature at Cairo University, Hoda Wasfi, professor of French literature at Ain Shams University and Mark Linz, director of the AUC Press. El-Naqqash described Al-Allama as "a novel that deals with the problematic relationship between the intellectual and authorities. Bensalem Himmich has produced a musically structured work made up of two melodic phrases: one historical and the other contemporary. Thus the novel addresses our times through the transparent veil of history."

Reading the judges' citation Ghazoul remarked that "Al-Allama is a historical novel and yet imagination plays an important role in personalising the biographical sketch we have of Ibn Khaldun. The orientation of Bensalem Himmich in this novel in particular, and in his fictional corpus in general, converges with that of the master, Naguib Mahfouz, in its quest for presenting the actual and the real in the garb of the fictional and the imaginative, in the mobilisation of historical events as material for storytelling."

In his acceptance speech Himmich outlined the dual poles that govern his approach to fiction; the philosophical and the historical. Explaining the former he said: "My devotion and attachment to the individual -- but not to individualism -- is what spurred me on the level of writing to understand the expressive possibilities of the novel and its communicative usefulness. Fiction allows the creation of the characters and the narrative unfolding of their life trajectories through the fabric of relations and intrigues in which they are embedded... I find in the novel strong semantic ties with informal philosophy revolving around existence and being; it possesses the most fertile grounds for reflection on human issues. In its liminal manifestations, the novel relates fundamentally to modes of meaning (or their absence) in the dialectic of life and death." As for the historical pole: "I see everything as heritage, that is, as history; for even what we produce today will one day be transformed into heritage."

Himmich also explained his indebtedness to Mahfouz: "What I have learned from the work of great masters of Mahfouz's stature is that language is the living treasury of the novelist. Language is the hallmark of the novelist... The genuine literary labour is to develop the language and to innovate it in a modernising way. This means the attainment of verbal and semantic freedom at once in a tightly dialectical mode as we witness in the past in the works of [Abu Hayyan] Al-Tawhidi and in the present in the works of Mahfouz. Influenced by these two figures, I find myself inclined toward the poetics of exposition rather than the poetics of grandiloquence, attracted to a transparency and simplicity that is hard to attain rather than to decorative and unfamiliar flourishes."

And finally, "What I continue to learn and derive from such writers is this lesson: the novel is as much the cultivation of knowledge as it is the application of creativity."

The AUC Mahfouz Medal for Literature is more often than not greeted with controversy within Egyptian intellectual circles. This year, though, reactions have been subdued: perhaps the award has taken observers by surprise as many in Cairo are not quite up to date with Maghribi literature. But the annoying question will undoubtedly be asked this year too: Why Himmich? Why not so-and-so? Indeed, why any author?

Anyway, this year's award ceremony had the new touch of readings from Naguib Mahfouz. Actress Raghda and actor Hesham Selim each read selections from Mahfouz's oeuvre, Raghda in Arabic, followed by Selim in English. They read the story "Half a Day" from his collection The Time and the Place as well as selections from Echoes of an Autobiography. One might confess, however, that Raghda's rendition was infinitely more appealing, animated and enjoyable, especially as she managed through her voice alone to inspire the audiences with the nuances of the text and the different characters and levels of consciousness in the story. Perhaps in the future this tradition could be extended to include readings from the winning work which -- in AUC Mahfouz Award tradition -- is often unfamiliar to the crowd.

At the ceremony, the AUC Press also announced the publication of translations of recent Mahfouz award winners, Edwar El-Kharrat's Rama and the Dragon and Somaya Ramadan's Leaves of Narcissus.


The Polymath By Bensalem Himmich

In this historical novel, we meet perhaps the most famous of all Arab intellectuals, the 14th-century historian and judge Ibn Khaldun. It is near the end of his life, and Khaldun has settled in Cairo after decades of advising North African and Spanish Muslim rulers. Amid rumors and rebellions in among the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, Ibn Khaldun is hired, fired, imprisoned and dispatched to negotiate with the Mamluk's saber-rattling adversary, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane. Readers have to plow through a long introduction to Ibn Khaldun's ideas before reaching the best part of this work, translated from Arabic: the personal history of a still-influential polymath.

--Liat Radcliffe

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