Yves Gonzalez-Quijano: One Day I Might Dream in Arabic
Published Tuesday, August 30, 2011
After thirty years of writing, translating, and lecturing, Yves Gonzalez-Quijano has become a familiar name to Arab ears. The French Arabist who lived briefly in Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo was not drawn to Arabic culture because of its exoticism or due to feelings of superiority. He was motivated by a personal desire free from preconceived notions towards the 'other.'
His is a postmodern Arabism. An applied Arabism similar to applied criticism. A child of the French student protest movement and the international Left, he is part of a generation that witnessed an end to colonialism in Algeria and sought to find itself outside the realms of French culture. Quijano was a contemporary of the late Michel Seurat and others who were passionate about Arab culture, supported the Palestinian cause, and strove to create an authentic dialogue with Arab and Islamic cultures.
While studying French literature at the Sorbonne, Quijano learned Arabic at the Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures in Paris. During this time, he began to read works that did not belong to the traditional ‘Arab’ cannon, which led him to a different approach towards Arab culture. Edward Said’s book Orientalism emancipated him from the typical outlook prevailing among Arabists in France, while the writings of Abdel Kabir al-Khatibi and Abdul-Fattah Kalito introduced him to Arabic voices that interlaced literature with politics and sociology and relied on implied signs, images, and connotations.
Quijano still recalls the strong slap across the face delivered by al-Khatibi to French Orientalism in his book White Vomit: Zionism and the Wretched Conscience. He also openly acknowledges his debt to Roland Barthes:
“I am one of Barthes’s students. His book, Mythologies, was a pioneering attempt to explain the changes in French society through fashion, cars, songs and cooking. In all modesty, I have tried to offer a similar explanation of the Arab world, where popular phenomena can be a window to an understanding of this world and its social and political changes.”
Similar ambitions made him feel that it was necessary to mix his reading with lived experience.
During the Lebanese Civil war and Israeli invasion in the 1980s, he moved to Beirut to work as a French teacher at the International College (IC). Beirut was not a desirable destination, but he seized the opportunity with enthusiasm. His Arabic improved and his literary education led him to read more novels and poetry. He read the works of Mahmoud Darwish, Salim Barakat, and Hanan al-Sheikh. He began to translate Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel, The Committee. He met Rashid Khalidi and Roger Nabaa at the Institute of Palestinian Studies and translated articles for the French edition of the Journal of Palestine Studies.
In 1987, he moved to Cairo, where he worked at the Center for Economic, Social, and Legal Research, but this move was less of a success. Even though the world of publishing and books was his choice of subject for his doctoral thesis, he was not comfortable there.
“Moving from Lebanon to Egypt is difficult and the opposite is also true. The rhythm of life is different in the two cities. I used to meet friends like Sonallah Ibrahim and the late Muhyiddin al-Labbad, but I did not delve deep enough into the cultural and social scene there.”
The experience accumulated in both cities would surface upon his return to France in 1990, where he worked as a special advisor at the Arab World Institute and started the book series, Arab Worlds, with the publishing house, Actes Sud. It was with them that his excellent translations were published: The Committee and Self by Sonallah Ibrahim, The Forgetting Game by Muhammad Baradah, Memory of Forgetfulness by Mahmoud Darwish, Friday, Sunday by Khaled Ziadeh, The Ostrich Egg by Raouf Musad, Zahra’s Story and I Sweep the Sun off The Rooftops by Hanan al-Sheikh, and Rashid al-Daif’s three books, Dear Mr. Kawabata, Learning English, and Forget the Car. During this time, he worked as a professor of contemporary Arabic literature at Leon University. He completed his thesis dealing with the Egyptian publishing movement of the fifties and sixties. It was published under the title The People of the Book.
Quijano’s translations are the literary side of his rich relationship with the Arab world, a relationship that became deeper as he became more involved in the study of the sociological and political phenomena and changes through which a detailed and tangible portrait of reality could be drawn. The French intellectual of Spanish origin, found another facet of his identity. Was he seeking some sort of reconciliation with himself? He likes the idea: “I think it was a game of smoke and mirrors. Part of my interest in the Arab world came as a result of my frustration with my incomplete Frenchness. It is as if I was attracted to a foreign culture because of my Spanish roots. With time, I have become certain that my study of Arab culture has made me understand my own. It allowed me to understand the real me.”
Did anything Arab seep into his identity? “I am a friend of the Arabs and their just causes. I love many things in the Arab world: friends, places, and memories. Perhaps, if I stay there long enough I will dream in Arabic,” he laughs, “but this is something one acquires and has nothing to do with identity.”
Five years ago, Quijano began a blog specializing in publishing material that dealt with changes in Arab daily life, including popular phenomena reflecting a more accurate picture of Arab society. Through this material, the French reader had a window on recent phenomena: the success of the Syrian TV series Bab al-Hara, the vogue for dubbed Turkish drama series, the new Saudi novel, the culture of pop music videos, and, finally, the role of the Internet and social networking sites in accelerating the Arab revolutions.
Even for a researcher who has come to know the Arab world quite closely, these revolutions came as a surprise. Quijano thought that the Arabs still had several more decades of stagnation to come. Quijano thinks it is likely that the revolutions will spread to societies that appear at first glance to be immune. He watches what is happening but holds out on pronouncing final verdicts. Still, he believes that changes are coming and that going back is no longer an option.
He has published a booklet on Internet use in the Middle East with his colleague Christophe Farines and he supervised and wrote the introduction to a book by the Moroccan researcher Thurayya Duaybis called Arabs Speak to Arabs, which featured articles on the Arab media. The fast developing current events stalled the publication of his book examining how everyday life in Arab countries can be a window into understanding the modern Arab world. It also put on hold his translation of The Return of the German to His Sound Mind by Rashid Daif.
When I recently met Quijano in Beirut, he was on his way to Europe for holiday, coming from Damascus, where he worked for the past year. He told me that he is now virtually dedicated to following the progress of the situation in the Arab world. He agrees that the Internet had a principal role in sparking the Arab revolution: “Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have played a prominent tactical role, but it is too early to say that the break out of revolution was only because of the Internet.” When I ask him about how successful revolutions that do not take over power be, he replies: “Perhaps this is a different kind of revolution. It is the culture of the youth and new generations. Take, for example, the student protests in France. They were not a full revolution in the political sense of the word, but after that, France changed forever.”
1954 - Born in Nantes, France.
1980 - Begins work as a French language teacher at the International College, Beirut.
1987 - Begins working as researcher at the Centre for Economic, Legal, and Social Research, Cairo.
1992 - His first translation work from Arabic to French, The Committee, by Sonallah Ibrahim appears.
2011 - Writing a book on how daily culture can be seen as a window to understanding the Arab World.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.