Literature to Connect

Watch HERE (from 18:35)

On Saturday 26 November 2022 I was one of the speakers, representing Inizjamed, at the second conference on creative cooperation hosted by the Arab Culture & Arts Network (ACAN) in Beirut Lebanon, with its slogan “We Come Together.” The conference took place over four days, from November 26th to November 29th, 2022, in the form of webinars through Zoom. The sessions were moderated by the program manager, Ana Cendrero Álvarez, ACAN’s executive director, Kassem Istanbouli, and ACAN’s coordinator and artistic advisor, Jana Al Hassan. On each day there were two webinars, the first starting at 2 p.m. (Lebanon time), and the second starting at 3 p.m. (Lebanon time).

Inizjamed’s participation in this network is coordinated by Dr Karsten Xuereb, who has many years of experience working in the field of Mediterranean and European cultural cooperation, and who intervened on Sunday, the second day of the conference .

The following is the text of my presentation. To keep to the allotted time, I left out large parts of the second and third paragraph, and the fourth and fifth paragraph altogether.

Literature to Connect

A talk by Adrian Grima (Inizjamed) | ACAN conference, 26 November 2022

Hi to everyone. My name is Adrian and I’m speaking to you from the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, south of the Italian island of Sicily, and south of Tunis. Malta is an independent country with a population of close to half a million people huddled together in 320 square kilometres of semi-arid land.

Despite our island’s proximity to North Africa, we as Maltese, to use social media speak, have a “complicated” relationship with the Arabic language. Our national language, which is over a thousand years old, comes from the Arabic spoken in the central Mediterranean, between Tunisia and Arab Sicily, in the eleventh century. Ironically, Maltese established itself as a language in its own right because it came into direct contact with Latin, Sicilian and Italian and those influences settled onto its Arabic base and partly even shaped its morphology, the way our language constructs words.

Maltese is today not only the national language of Malta but also the only official language of the European Union of Arabic origin. At least since the 1990s, at Inalco, the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, Maltese has always been taught in the Department of Arabic Studies and is part of the programme for students studying the language varieties of the Maghreb. 

Malti Safi

And yet the contact of Maltese speakers with the Arabic language is minimal, and it has been so for a very long time. Sadly, despite the presence of thousands of Arabic-speaking people living and working in Malta, the study of Arabic in schools among Maltese-born children is negligible. The fact that we had to be forced to study Arabic at secondary school in the 1980s is testimony to our distance from the language that gave birth to Maltese. In spite of this cultural distance, when Maltese became the main language of literature in Malta with the advent of the Romantic movement in the first half of the nineteenth century, writers showed a distinct preference for words of Arabic origin in the often highly stylized literary language that they wrote. It was considered “Malti Safi,” “pure Maltese,” and therefore more authentic. Moreover, in typical Romantic fashion, the roots of this “purer” version of Maltese were meant to lie in the language of rural communities rather than in the more culturally mixed urban areas. 

Against the backdrop of an everyday language that was heavily influenced by Italian, the kind of Maltese the writers actually spoke, it probably sounded more special, less ravaged by the waves of modernity. But in the poems and the stories of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Arabs, often called “Turks,” “it-Torok,” and Muslims, “il-Misilmin,” were the arch rivals of the Maltese patriots defending their country and Christendom. That narrative changed with the horrific events of World War Two, in which Malta was bombed mercilessly by the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis, supposedly our European, Christian brethren. It had already been dented by the short-lived French occupation of Malta in 1798. But in our Romantic nationalist literature, the biggest rivals remained “the Turks.”

A Mediterranean Narrative

When in 1998 we created an independent cultural association called Inizjamed, short for “Mediterranean initiative,” we wanted to promote the kind of collaboration with artists, writers and cultural activists in our region of the world that was sorely missing. We were particularly keen to find ways to collaborate with artists, and especially writers, from our Arabic-speaking neighbours. As Maltese authors writing in a language of Arabic origin, and as Mediterraneans, we needed to listen to their voices and their languages. So apart from reaching out to other literatures of Europe and beyond, we invited writers from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Occupied Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia. 

In 2011, that special year of dignity and hope for so many of our friends, we had Yasser Abdellatif (Egypt), Awlad Ahmed (Tunisia), Mona El Shemy (Egypt), Tarek Eltayeb (Sudan/Egypt/Austria), Rasha Omran (Syria), and Abdelrehim Youssef (Alexandria, Egypt). Their voices, their passion, their hopes filled the air of our encounters. They also filled our hearts and minds with dreams of a better world. More than ever before, their struggle became our struggle; their language became our language.

I remember translating one of Awlad Ahmed’s poems in Tunisian Arabic, an iconic poem called “Papillon” (in French) which had become a staple during the protest marches in the streets of Tunisia. I translated it into Maltese with him and with Mohamed-Salah Omri, and read it on stage. It meant a great deal to Awlad Ahmed because it showed that we not only had very similar languages but also, and perhaps more importantly, a kindred spirit. In his reading, there was the passionate sounds and rhythms of a poet and a Tunisian who was committed to struggling for a better country, a more inclusive and vibrant community. 

Many other Arabic-language writers have etched the images, sounds and rhythms of their poetry and prose on our consciousness. Perhaps the best-known is Elias Khoury (Lebanon), but we have had other great Arab writers. Hassan el Ouazzani (Morocco), Fatena Alghorra (Gaza, Palestine), Youssef Rakha (Egypt), Suad Amiry (Palestine), Ghazi Gheblawi (Libya/UK), Golan Haji (Syria), Mazen Maarouf (Palestine), Tamim Barghouti (Palestine), Mourid  Barghouti (Palestine), Lilia Ben Romdhane (Tunisia), Ali Thareb (Bābil, Iraq), Rasha Abbas (Syria), Ghayath Almadhoun (Palestine/Syria), and most recently, Lamis Saidi (Algeria).

In this list I have left out those Arab writers, or writers of Arab origin, that don’t normally write in Arabic, only because in this short presentation I’m focussing on how vital it has been for us to listen to voices and verses in Arabic, to reconnect not only with Arabic-language literature but with the individual lives and communities they communicate to us in meaningful ways. Moreover, their translations of Maltese works into Arabic have taken our literature to Arabic-speaking audiences. I have also left out the work of two Maltese writers whose mother-tongue is Arabic: Walid Nabhan, the Palestinian writer brought up in Amman, Jordan, and Murad Shubert, a Moroccan from Casablanca, who have both written beautiful pages of prose and poetry in Maltese and have done a lot of translation of Maltese works into Arabic. The presence of Arabic-speaking writers in Malta has been a great source of pride for both Walid Nabhan and Murad Shubert, and in many ways it has empowered them as writers.

Meaningful Human Encounter

What makes our small festival an open space of meaningful human encounter and cultural exchange is its rather unusual format. It was influenced by our close collaboration with a European literary network called Literature Across Frontiers. The ten to twelve authors invited to the festival every year spend about a week in Malta. They start off with a three-day residential literary translation workshop in which they translate each other’s works and discuss them in depth with each other. During these first days there are also some public events like talks and panel discussions. These are followed by the two or three nights of the readings. The workshop plays a significant role in the festival nights because the authors read each other’s work in translation on stage. The literary exchange is therefore very rich and very real. 

Language is often seen as an obstacle to human encounter. But when encounter happens through the deep sharing of literature, through translation, through the sharing of sounds and rhythms, through thoughts and emotions, the bridges that are built are strong and they can take us far. Together.

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