Abdelwahab Meddeb at the 'Comédie du Livre' of Montpellier in 2011
|Died||5 November 2014 (aged 68)|
Abdelwahab Meddeb (Tunisian Arabic: عبد الوهاب المدب; 1946 – 5 November 2014) was a French-language writer and cultural critic, and a professor of comparative literature at the University of Paris X-Nanterre.
Meddeb was born in Tunis, French Tunisia, in 1946, into a learned and patrician milieu. His family's origins stretch from Tripoli and Yemen on his mother's side, to Spain and Morocco on his father's side. Raised in a traditionally observant North African Muslim family, Meddeb began learning the Qur'an at the age of four from his father, Sheik Mustapha Meddeb, a scholar of Islamic law at the Zitouna, the great mosque and university of Tunis. At the age of six he began his bilingual education at the Franco-Arabic school that was part of the famous Collège Sadiki. Thus began an intellectual trajectory nourished, in adolescence, by the classics of both Arabic and French and European literatures.
In 1967, Meddeb moved to Paris to continue his university studies at the Sorbonne in art history. In 1970-72, he collaborated on the dictionary Petit Robert: Des Noms Propres, working on entries concerning Islam and art history. From 1974-1987 he was a literary consultant at Sindbad publications, helping to introduce a French reading public to the classics of Arabic and Persian literatures as well as the great Sufi writers. A visiting Professor at Yale University and the University of Geneva, Meddeb has been teaching comparative literature since 1995 at the University of Paris X-Nanterre. Between 1992 and 1994 he was co-or of the journal Intersignes, and in 1995 he started the journal Dédale. His first novel, Talismano, was published in Paris in 1979 and quickly became a founding text of avant-garde postcolonial fiction in French. At the time, he was "considered in France as one of the best young writers from North Africa".
After 9/11 Meddeb's work, informed by his self-described "double genealogy", both Western and Islamic, French and Arabic, included an urgent political dimension. An outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism, he lamented the rise of Islamic fascism, which he noted was both exploitative of traditional Islamic values and given to the glorification of totalitarian dictators that sought "to colonize every last corner of private life...and that dream of exterminating whole sectors of the population" (as opposed to authoritarian dictators whose main goal is to preserve their own power.) Meddeb, then, was a staunch proponent of secularism ("la laïcité") in the French Enlightenment tradition, as the necessary guarantor of democracy that would reconcile Islam with modernity. His vigilant point of view derived from what he called the "in-between" space ("l’entre deux") that he occupied as a North African writer based in France, and from the responsibility of being a public intellectual. His erudite historical and cultural analyses of world events led to many publications, interviews and radio commentaries. His carefully researched and well-argued 2002 study, La Maladie de l’Islam (translated and published in English as The Malady of Islam) traces the historical and cultural riches of medieval Islamic civilization and its subsequent decline. The resulting posture, "inconsolable in its destitution", writes Meddeb, gave root to modern Islamic fundamentalism, a fact embodied by the modern Arab states' attachment to the archaic, Manichaean laws of "official Islam." The book also explores the tragic consequences of the West's exclusion of Islam.
From orials in the French newspaper Le Monde on the Israeli invasion of Gaza (i.e., 13 Jan. '09), to Obama's "Cairo Speech" (4 June 2009), to his two weekly radio programs, "Cultures d’islam" at Radio France Culture and "Point de Vue" at Médi 1 (broadcast from Tangiers, Morocco), to his television appearances and his online interviews, Meddeb uses the media as a forum for exploration and debate. After his death, the radio programme "Cultures d’islam" is led by Abdennour Bidar. His work juxtaposes writers and scholars from East and West, engaging subjects that are historical, cultural, religious, political, and thereby challenging the stereotypes that Muslims and Europeans hold about each other. A voice of tolerant Islam, Meddeb is no stranger to controversy from militant Muslim quarters and some left-wing journalists, who accuse him of complacency towards the Ben Ali regime.
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From his earliest essays, novels, poems and orial work in the mid-1970s onward, Meddeb's writing has always been multiple and diverse, forming an ongoing literary project that mixes and transcends genres. His texts are those of a polymath.
The movement and rhythms of his French sentences are commensurate with the mations of a narrator who is a flâneur, a walker in the city, and a poet without borders. Associative imagery allows the writing to nomadize across space and time, to dialogue with writers such as Dante and Ibn Arabi, the Sufi poets and Stéphane Mallarmé, Spinoza, Aristotle and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), along with the poets of classical China and Japan. Formally, Meddeb practices what he calls an "esthetics of the heterogeneous,” playing with different literary forms from many traditions, including the European modernist novel, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, the medieval mystical poets of Islam, Japanese Haiku, and so on. Although he writes only in French, his work as a translator of medieval Arabophone poets, as well as his conscious literary ambition to "liberate the Islamic referent from its strict context so that it circulates in the contemporary French text" marks his writing with enigmatic traces of 'otherness". His privileging of these Arabic and Persian literary precursors explores archaic cultural resources in postmodern forms, emphasizing the esthetic, spiritual and ethical aspects of Islam. His work, translated into over a dozen languages, opens onto and enriches the dialogue with contemporary world literature.
Available in French
(in periodicals, online, and in collections)
(All translations below by Charlotte Mandell)
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