Interview with Habib Selmi

"Writing Is a Journey Using Language from Within"

Habib Selmi is one of the most important Tunisian authors writing in Arabic. In this elaborate interview with Samuel Shimon, Selmi talks about his relationship to his mother tongue, his dislike of French literature and the art of the novel

photo: Lenos Verlag
Selmi, novelist and academic, finds the Arab novel overwhelmingly emphasises the social aspect

​​When I met Habib Selmi for the first time in October 1982 he had already published one collection of short stories (1977). He told me he had just finished his second collection (1986) and was starting on a new project. "What's that?" I asked and he said: "Writing a novel." The next day, in Tontonville restaurant, Habib read me the opening chapter from his novel entitled Jabal al-'Anz (Goat Mountain).

Three years later, I met Habib in Café Cluny in Paris and he told me he had just finished Goat Mountain and sent it to be published in Beirut. Since then Habib Selmi has published five novels. His latest Ushaq Bayya (Bayya's Lovers) was highly acclaimed by Arab literary critics and was immediately translated into French and published by Actes Sud. Recently, when I was walking with Habib Selmi around Place de la Republique near his home I told him how much I admired and enjoyed his work. And we continued talking...

Habib, when did you start writing? How did you become a writer?

Habib Selmi: The first texts that I wrote were all short. I sent them in to a famous literary programme called "Literary Amateurs" at Tunisian Radio. The programme was supervised by a well-known, very well-respected poet by the name of Ahmad al-Lughmani, who played an important role in uncovering several literary talents in Tunisia. His programme was one of the most important on Tunisian Radio. Perhaps it was the most important on-air literary programme in Tunisia. Al-Lughmani invited me several times to participate in a discussion following the broadcast of my stories.

At the end of every month, financial prizes were given for the best stories and poems that had been broadcast on the programme that month. One of the winning stories would be selected for publication in the radio magazine. I recall winning the story prize several times, and three of my stories were published by the radio magazine.

You started out with the short story but then turned your attention to the novel.

Habib Selmi: My move from the short story to the novel was a natural one. I didn't plan it or force myself into it. I began to write at an early age at a time when most prose writers in Tunis wrote short stories. It was rare at the time to find a novelist who had published more than two novels. It was therefore natural that I should write short stories at first, particularly since there was more opportunity to publish short stories in newspapers and magazines, or to have them broadcast in cultural radio programmes, than to publish novels.

I think it is rare to find a novelist in the Arab world who has not written short stories. The short story is a literary genre and an art in its own right, and it has its own followers and well-known writers. Contrary to what some people think it is a difficult art, so only a few writers – such as Anton Chekhov, Yusef Idrees and Raymond Carver – have been successful at it.

When I wrote my first novel Jabal al-‘Anz (Goat Mountain), I found that I was attracted to the art of the novel and I discovered its pleasures.

Your previous novel Hufar Dafi'aa (Warm Ditches) takes place in a miserable hotel in Paris and in your most recent novel, Ushaq Bayya, you confine all your protagonists to one place.

Habib Selmi: I confined all my protagonists to a small space throughout the novel because in general, I favour novels with few events and places. I believe that a novel is not a tale or a myth that is full of characters and events. The novel is not a sack full of occurrences and changes.

In Ushaq Bayya, the location, which is an old olive tree beneath which four old men sit every day awaiting death, never changes. At the heart of this is the story of the widow Bayya, who is loved and desired by some of the old men. But circumstances dictate that she marries an immigrant and stranger who carries her off to Germany, where he lives, and treats her badly, angering the old men.

I wrote Ushaq Bayya, which was published in 2002, between 1998 and 2000 – that is, in three years. I sent it to Dar al-Adab, and they quickly agreed to publish it. Of course, the way in which Ushaq Bayya has been welcomed has pleased me, as has its translation into French and its publication by Actes Sud in Paris. As for the quality of that translation, everyone who has read the novel has expressed admiration for it and for the great effort that the translator – the well-known Arabist Yves Gonzales Quijano – has made to convey in French the atmosphere and intricate nuances of the novel.

What was it that drew you to the world of the elderly?

Habib Selmi: I have been dreaming of writing this novel ever since I began to write. The idea has remained with me from the beginning. It found me, rather than me finding it. The reason is simple – contrary to what some people think. The world of old men is intimately linked to my childhood. I grew up in what is called the extended family. I grew up amongst a crowd of paternal uncles and aunts, maternal uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers. I used to see them and they used to see me every day because the houses in the neighbourhood are close together and open to everyone.

Cafés do not exist in the Tunisian countryside. There are shops where the young men go to play cards. But the old people meet every day – just like the old men in Ushaq Bayya – in the same place in one of the fields. That place is usually beneath a large olive tree, or something of that nature.

I remember that my father used to sit with those old men and used to order me to bring him a water jug for his ablutions before the evening prayer. This allowed me to penetrate the world of those old people and to spend a bit of time with them, listening to some of the tales and unique stories that they used to tell.

What do you think of the translations of your works into French and English? There is also a slightly less noticeable wave of translation of Arabic novels into world languages.

Habib Selmi: These translations are important to me because they allow me to have contact with readers belonging to a different cultural horizon, who read in a different way. I hope that they (my translated works), along with translations of other Arabic novels, contribute to presenting a positive image of Arab literature in the west.

It is true that there is a wave of translating the Arab novel in the west and that in itself is a good thing. It means that Arab literature, which remained unknown for many years in most western countries, has started to draw the attention of publishers and readers. I hope that the trend widens and develops so that the Arab novel comes to occupy its rightful place. I also hope that European readers become more interested in the Arab novel and that such interest does not remain restricted to certain cultural circles.

You live in Paris, but you haven't tried writing in French. What do you think of the idea of an Arab creative writer using another language?

Habib Selmi: I think that some Arab immigrants have tended to write in French because they do not have as good a command of Arabic as of French. Most of those writers are either the children of immigrants and were born in France, or they are Algerians and Moroccans who did not learn Arabic properly in their own countries.

Personally, I am not opposed to those who write in French or in English or even in Chinese. It is the right of every writer to choose whatever languages he or she pleases. And then, why should we ask of a writer who does not know Arabic or does not have a good command of it to write in it?

Unfortunately, some Francophone writers keep saying in the French media that Arabic is an "old", "authoritarian" and "religious" language. Some even go as far as criticising Arabic by describing it as "dead" and "completely incapable of expressing the concerns, issues and problems of the modern individual". All of this is categorically untrue.

The reason I do not write in French is because I love Arabic. The language through which I discovered the world, the language in which I dream, the language that inhabits the cells of my body, the language that runs in my blood is Arabic. I love French the way I love all the languages of the world, both "great" and "small". But I cannot allow it to take the place of Arabic.

Although I have a good command of French and it is the language I use in everyday life, it remains a foreign language when I write because writing does not entail a neutral and cold use of language. Writing is a journey using language from within to travel to one's deepest and farthest feelings, impressions, visions, ideas, apprehensions and dreams.

To what extent have you been influenced by the French novel, and the world novel in general? What are the sources that have influenced your experience? Is it the new French novel, or what?

Habib Selmi: Living in Paris, which remains one of the major cultural centres of the world, has enabled me to be informed about what is being written in the world. The translation movement in Paris is brisk, and much more significant than the translation movement in Arab countries. Moreover, Arabic translations cannot be relied on because most of them are inaccurate and are usually carried out through a second language (English or French in most cases).

I am not a fan of French literature. I have read works that are considered part of the new French novel, mostly by Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute. I do not like the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, despite his efforts to define the basic features of the nouveau roman, the "new novel". I like some of the novels of Claude Simon, who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Some French novels that do not belong to the nouveau roman genre have attracted my attention. They are numerous and belong to different tendencies and sensibilities. Despite this, I do not think that I am an admirer or enthusiast of French literature.

The writers who influenced me and informed my experience during the years when I was feeling my way forward were Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Cervantes, Borges and Shakespeare. I developed a great admiration for what I read of Julio Cortazar, Raymond Carver and Italo Calvino.

There is a wave of novel-writing in the Arab world today. What do you think of it?

Habib Selmi: This novelistic upsurge in the Arab World is a good thing, of course. It shows that the Arab consciousness has changed because the world takes shape through the novel differently from the way in which it takes shape through poetry. The Arab novel, in my view, did not develop coincidentally, but as the result of the development of the Arab mentality, its closeness to the world and its perception of it.

Personally, that does not surprise me. The novel in the precise sense in which it is to be found in Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, is the art of the present and the future because it is capable of absorbing everything.

I cannot, in my view, speak of the Arab novel as though it were homogeneous because we would then inevitably fall into absolute judgements that are meaningless. There are important Arabic novels and the evidence for this is that they get some attention in the west when they are translated. Of course, I am referring to real novels, not those "things" that are called translations and are issued by unknown publishing houses.

My criticism of the Arab novel is that it overwhelmingly emphasises the social aspect. I understand and like the novel to be a novel of the self as it intersects with its surroundings.

What do you think of the novel in Tunisia? Can we speak of a "Tunisian novel"?

Habib Selmi: I think we can now speak of a "Tunisian novel" without falling into any exaggeration. In recent years, a large number of Tunisian novels have been published in Tunisia and abroad, and a considerable number of Tunisian novelists have three or four works to their names. There is a regular pattern of publication, there are distinctive and differing narrative worlds and there is a seriousness about writing which was previously only to be found amongst a small number of novelists in Tunisia.

Interview conducted by Samuel Shimon

© 2006

The full version of the interview was previously published in Banipal, an English-language magazine for contemporary Arab literature.

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