Friday 22 January 2010

Dutch-Moroccan (Moroccan-Dutch?) Author wins prestigious literary prize

Moroccan-born Dutch author Abdelkader Benali can add another literary prize to his crown of laurels. Today it was announced that he has been awarded the E. du Perron Prize for his novel De Stem van Mijn Moeder (My Mother's Voice). The E. du Perron Prize was established to recognise individuals who contribute through their cultural expressions to the Netherlands multicultural society. In its motivation for giving the prize to Benali, the jury explained that although starting out as an exponent of 'migrant literature'*, Benali is no longer confined by such boundaries, but has moved on to 'giving voice to an infinite literature'.

34-year old Benali made his debut in 1996 with the novel Bruiloft aan Zee (Wedding by the Sea), which won the Geertjan Lubberhuizen Prize. This was followed by a play and collection of short stories, but the real breakthrough came with his second novel De Langverwachte (The Long-Awaited). This book established Benali as a significant writer of Dutch literature and it received the Libris Prize 2003. Since then he has become a very prolific writer, also adding poetry and non-fiction to his oeuvre. These writings include a reportage of the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah in Beirut, published as Berichten uit een Belegerde Stad (Reports from a City under Siege).

Benali is one of several Dutch writers of Moroccan origin, such as Hafid Bouazza (winner of the 1996 E. du Perron Prize), Fouad Laroui (E. du Perron Prize 2002), Mohammed Benzakour (who was nominated alongside Benali for the 2009 E. du Perron Prize), and Naima El Bezaz. They have become so well-established that they are no longer merely regarded as producers of semi-exotic migrant novels, but recognised as an integral part of the Dutch literary landscape.

Some combine their artistic work with academic and/or political engagement. Where Bouazza, although having a fascination with the literary legacy of the Muslim world, profiles himself mainly as a fierce critic of religion (in particular Islam) and the Moroccan community in the Netherlands, Benzakour served as a member of the Zwijndrecht municipal council and briefly joined the civil service after obtaining degrees in government and sociology. Courted by both the Arab-European League (AEL) to become the leader of its Dutch branch, and controversial Dutch politician Rita Verdonk, who wanted him as her adviser during her stint in office as minister of immigration and integration, he rejected both offers. Benzakour has also expressed himself in favour of indicting George W. Bush in an international court of justice and he questioned the way Tariq Ramadan was removed from his positions as consultant to the Rotterdam municipality and professor at the city's Erasmus University (see the post of 18 August 2009).

In my view these writers must be regarded as part of a broader phenomenon of 'diasporic' Moroccan and other North African writers and intellectuals, such as Anouar Majid and Laila Lalami in the United States, or Paris-based Abdelwahab Meddeb. Take for example Fouad Laroui, who trained as an engineer and economist before trying his hand at literature. He is not only recognised as both a literary figure and scholar in the Netherlands, where he holds a chair at the University of Amsterdam, but also in the Francophone and English-speaking world. Aside from contributions to literature and economics, he has also written a book on political Islam under the title De'Islamisme (see also Laila Lalami's blog). In a similar vein, Abdelwahab Meddeb too has not only produced translations of Sufi poetry by Al-Bistami and Ibn Arabi, but written a personal assessment of the situation in the Muslim world, entitled The Malady of Islam, whereas literary scholar Anouar Majid established his name with studies such as Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World. Straddling the worlds of literature and academia, they also show themselves as critical Muslims or exponents of a cosmopolitan reading of Islam.

* see also the article in Migrant Literature on the German website Qantara.

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