“When despair prevails, we must create optimism.”
The Nahda Forum hosted the Algerian academic and novelist Wasiny Laredj at the eighth session, titled “The humanist Arab Renaissance, the Arab’s last escape route.”
The session discussed the “the dilemma of culture and the intellectual Arab,” an issue that is increasingly neglected and becomes more complex day after day. It continues to be the prey of ideological struggle between conservatism and liberalism, as well as the political and religious conflict that caused the loss of the Arab identity and shattering of the Arab emotional sentiment.
The dilemma of culture and the intellectual Arab from the perspective of Laredj
Wasiny Laredj finds his inner peace through a kind of novel writing that upholds everlasting, undying humanist values. Laredj perfects the formula of creating a text rich with humanist and sentimental values, without neglecting objective reality and in the end produces a solid linguistic relationship with the reader.
Laredj wonders, what does it mean to be a novelist in this era, with all certainties collapsing at a quickening pace?
Is the novelist required to reproduce the daily scene, taking on the role of the journalist, or should this responsibility be left to the journalist himself?
Or is the novelist required to be submerged in fantasy, to the extent that he becomes a hypnotic tool of the audience, detaching them from their reality?
For Laredj, he sees the novelist as having a personal responsibility to society. This responsibility calls for social realities to be contained in his novels and his writings, in a way that he challenges himself to create a balance; so that he is part of the social structure while at the same time having the awareness to be objectively critical from the outside. This responsibility demands the novelist give readers works that contain hints and discourses, not for the purpose of indoctrination but rather to form an intellectual and educated partnership with the reader.
Laredj acknowledges that “a text is the product of its time,” which stays alive in the emotional sentiment without being limited by the time frame of its production. Put simply, it is a timeless text.
Laredj sets an example for the timeless literary texts produced in 1918 that contained unexpired humanist values, such as freedom, humanism, the prevailing of justice, law, personal freedoms, and a stance against war.
He compares these texts to those dated to the Algerian Revolution of 1954-1962. While there is no denying that the texts were indeed patriotic and honorable, it is thought that these works’ connection to the “Algerian case” had, in a way, led to their death.
Exception to this are some of the novels of Assia Djebar and other novelists who dealt with French colonization from an insightful perspective, differentiating between the colonizer and the French. Laredj noted the story of Maurice Audin French activist and supporter of the Algerian revolution, who was killed by the French Army. Many of the texts that adopted an undifferentiated stance of these events failed.
During his talk, Laredj addressed Palestinian literature, considering it to have fallen into the same trap as Algerian writers more than once, with exception to the timeless texts of some Palestinian writers, such as Ghassan Kanafani’s ‘A’d ila Haifa and Ma tabqa ilkm.
Dilemma of the Arab Renaissance as defined by Laredj
The intellectual Arab Renaissance and the political dimension?
Laredj noted that the renaissance is a transition from one situation to another and from one position to another position of marked advancement.
He is not just puzzled by the linkage of the Arab Renaissance’s beginnings to the French Campaign in Egypt, in fact he condemns such a notion.
Presuming that Napoleon had introduced the tools of renaissance to the region, tools like the printing press in its contemporary form, he certainly did it for his own personal political interest rather than to introduce renaissance to Egypt.
How can anyone link the Renaissance to the colonizer?
Laredj affirms that this reflected a bizarre logic on the literary movement as a whole, marking the start of the renaissance and purposely creating a knowledge split with the previous era that had witnessed the enlightened thinking of Ibn Rushd, who explained the relation between the religious and the worldly, and philosophy and religion.
This was accompanied by the dating of the first Arabic novel to the year 1914, when the novel Zaynab was first issued by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal despite the fact the track record of a rich, knowledge-filled past that boasted texts such as One Thousand and One Nights, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, Rihlat ibn jabiir, and Touq alHamam by Ibn Hazam al-Andalusi, a novel directed towards the rulers of the time, each proving that the 10th century was flush with literary texts.
Laredj concludes that Zaynab was given special attention only because it was written within the framework of the French novel, attributing political dimensions to the attention it received.
The Humanist Arab Renaissance and the woman
From his perspective, women Arabic novelists have generally fallen victim to male chauvinism, including even the most important female writers like Zaina al-Fuwaz, who he considered the first female Arab novelist, though she was not widely given this recognition.
May Ziade is yet another prolific novelist, who was intellectually and culturally productive through her works and literary salon, hosting Taha Hussein, Hafez Ibrahim, al-Aqqad, to whom she introduced a dialogue on issues related to the rights of women. According to Laredj, her creativity came to a close when a male cousin had her institutionalized following an inheritance issue.
The reality of the Arab awakening, literary critique, and government censorship
In his analysis of the status of the Arab Renaissance and the loss of Arabic identity, together with the shattered emotional sentiment nowadays, he answered the lasting question… “What next?”
Laredj believes that the novel is no longer a game of words; the writer must be connected to his reality with a vision. For instance, in his novel Mamlikat al-Frashat, he refers to the “silent war”; the stage that follows a bloody war, and all its negative manifestations such as a lack of trust and devoid of certainties. In Mamlikat al-Frashat, he points to the hidden powers that prevent the butterfly from continuing on in life, a relation that can be linked to the reality of the Arab world today in Syria, Iraq, and Libya!
Laredj sees that the one solution for the Arab awakening and the final path that lay before the Arabs comes from the school. Culture, music, and art alone will not create enlightened thought; dignified education is in need of a clear and stable strategy that does not change with the change of cabinet.
He added that the dilemma of the Arabic language is its link to religion, and that one of the most important chosen religious texts in education encourages extremism and terrorism, particularly pointing to the Arabic language curriculum in Algeria that begin with the Quranic verse ”And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war.” Laredj considers it a preparation for a state of war, yet its use continues despite the incredible presence of humanist stories within the text of the Holy Quran, that contain charity and humanist values like the story of Youssef.
So how can the state be surprised by terrorism, ignoring that this exists within the classroom?
The state must rely on the Renaissance project and realize that the real dangers are hidden taboos that produce a generation of hatred for culture, literature, and politics. Hatred like this stands beyond the realm of critical thinking. Ultimately, critical thinking is an expression of culture, education and creative freedom. If the state is not aware of these factors, there will not be an Arab awakening in any field. All of this is in addition to the existence of a hidden agenda to tear apart, disintegrate, and humiliate the Arab world, as is summarized by the notion: “A good Arab is a dead Arab.”
Laredj is aware that this view may appear pessimistic, however he assures that this is reality. He reminds us that even when despair prevails, we must create optimism.
The Arab Renaissance and the Dilemma of Identity
Laredj sees that our Arab culture excludes the other, and the only solution to the identity dilemma and the conflicts that created it, is hidden within citizenship as a cornerstone of creating society anew. While not disposing of our past in its entirely, it is not possible to achieve the renaissance unless we be daring and save ourselves from remaining, according to Nietzsche, prisoners to reproducing that which we inherited; creatively, scientifically, and culturally.
Only then will we create an elite and educated Arab leader, returning to the Arab essence itself. Illuminating the path towards the Arab Renaissance, built on reality and logic, refuting delusion and conspiracies, is possible, and needed, to deal with the concerns of the Arab and renew his or her creativity and urge him or her to innovate and criticize.