Notes on Abdelkebir Khatibi
A recent issue of the PMLA contains a small collection of essays by the late Moroccan novelist, critic, and sociologist Abdelkebir Khatibi (1938-2009). In David Fieni’s brief introduction to these essays, he speaks at some length of Khatibi’s friendship with Jacques Derrida in the context of Khatibi’s and Derrida’s theories (sometimes shared, sometimes differing) regarding monolingualism, colonialism, and the possibility of a “poetics of hospitality.”
As Khatibi has it, by writing neither fully in French nor in Arabic, he is able to develop a linguistic, literary, and ultimately cultural space in which a specific definition of bilingualism can flourish and received notions of colonialism and alienation can be challenged and reworked. Ronnie Scharfman also points out, in a brief review of Khatibi’s La langue de l’autre, that Khatibi consistently singles out “the role of syntax in providing rhythms where the m(o)ther tongue can be detected and explored” (192). The intersection of rhythm, language, and ethics is an important one. Khatibi himself refers to syntax as “my point of access, and my passageway into the time of each term; syntax: a unification in motion of the target language” (1005). For Khatibi, syntax “broadens the space of hospitality where the writer is received in [her or] his text like a guest, in the reader’s shadow” (1005).
The issue of syntax (and readers) is of course important for analyses of Aljamiado literature (whether in Arabic or Latin script), and Khatibi’s arguments regarding the rhythms of syntax as a kind of locus (to conflate metaphors of time and space) for play and negotiation are highly suggestive. What is, we may ask, the result of all those passages of Aljamiado that follow neither the rhythms of Arabic nor Castilian syntax in any full way? There is of course the practical issue of translation (i.e., many of these texts were translated directly from Arabic), but this adds to rather than takes away from the urgency and richness of Khatibi’s main point: he theorizes writing itself, at least within the strange (and estranging) “territory” (maybe “turf” is a better term) of francophonie, as an act of “simultaneous translation,” a “grafting procedure” (1005).
The thorny question for any Khatibian account of Aljamiado literature, of course, is what constitutes the “language of the other”? Is it Arabic? Castilian? Aragonese? Certainly arguments can be made that for Aragonese scribes and readers in the sixteenth century, each of these languages (as forms of monolingual expression in Derrida’s sense) would constitute a form of colonization — equally alienating langues de l’autre that “scramble” (to use Fieni’s term) the mother tongue. A mother tongue that was not either of these languages or both of them, but rather the result of a broadening of the space of hospitality afforded, at least in part, by the temporal/spatial interstices of syntax.
Following Khatibi’s ideas (and he’s not alone in this project, which seems to be a current that runs through much Maghrebi writing in what we might provisionally term the post-Fanon and post-Memmi era), we might argue that Aljamiado texts — in most extant cases a thorough mixing-together of Castilian, Arabic, and Aragonese morpho-syntactic, lexical, and even pragmatic features — represent a similar intent (and the queston of intentionality is very problematic, in large part because we know so little about the local theories of selfhood that would support any emic notion of “intention”) on the part of Morisco reading communities (which would include alphabetically illiterate members of the listening public) to create a “poetics of hospitality” within a setting that was decidedly inhospitable. This is subtly different from notions such as “decentering” and “subversion” that are common in postcolonial criticism, and I’m likewise not arguing that we should be engaging in close readings of Aljamiado texts for hints of some poststructuralist (très avant la lettre) approach to language.
We should also keep in mind that any sense of “inhospitability” and “otherness” for Morisco speech/textual communities would stem not just from Castilian but also (and perhaps more crucially) from Arabic, where rigid rules of grammar and highly developed ideologies of language and revelation have made Classical Arabic (or even MSA) the “mother tongue” of no one. The image that emerges here is not of Moriscos striving to preserve their Arabic (or some semblance of it) by any means necessary and against all odds, but rather of communities working to develop a “poetics of hospitality” (and practical mediation) somewhere between Castilian and Arabic (and various dialects, Romance and otherwise).
What emerges if we work to adapt Khatibi’s insights to examine the manuscript literature of Moriscos? I admit that I don’t really know at this point — my goal in posting these ideas is to start a conversation or to mark my place (at this time) more than to offer any sort of definitive argument on the subject. For now, I’m just holding Khatibi’s insights up to the literature that most concerns me and seeing what emerges. For the moment, at least, just more metaphors. And more evidence that focusing on rhythm and ethics matters.