Friday 21 November 2014

Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946-2014): The disloyal loyalty of a critical Muslim

The French-Tunisian literary writer and essayist Abdelwahab Meddeb passed away on 6 November. Born into a North-African family of religious scholars, he moved to France in his youth to pursue a literary career. In the course of his life he became increasingly fascinated with his Muslim roots, but re-interpreted these in his own original manner. His re-readings of the Islamic heritage were often considered controversial by Muslim traditionalists and certainly outrageous and unacceptable to narrow-minded literalists on the reactionary side of the Muslim spectrum. Earlier posts about Meddeb and his work on this blog can be found here and here and here. The following excerpts are taken from an obituary that appeared on the Qantara website. 
Meddeb's act of crossing boundaries did not extinguish or deny the traces of his roots, which remained for him a powerful reference point and source of creative interplay. Again and again, Meddeb made reference to his dual ancestry in the East and the West, especially in the light of his origins in the Maghreb, which from an Arab perspective is the "West". He saw himself as a decidedly secular, Arab-European cosmopolitan individual whose chief concern was a revival of the intellectual convergence of the Islamic, Jewish and Christian history of thought that had been lost for centuries.
He set himself the long-term task of carving out an image of Islam that does not accentuate dogma and norm, but divergence, and of issuing insistent reminders of the critical, bold and even blasphemous thought that has also existed within Islam and among Muslim thinkers.
In this regard he saw points for launching a fruitful dialogue between the freedoms of the Western modern age and the polyphonic, multicultural legacy of Islamic societies.

Meddeb never tired of bemoaning the cultural amnesia fostered by westernisation and fundamentalism, a condition that affects both Western and Islamic societies in equal measure. What remains is the fatal polarisation of totally entrenched identities perpetuated by phantasms of supposed purity and clarity that are blind to history.
Like few others, Abdelwahab Meddeb made a convincing case for the argument that creativity, development and vitality are only possible through free thought, the crossing of boundaries and "disloyal loyalty" – and not through rigid morals, the pressure to conform, or the other extreme of denial and contemptuous rejection of tradition.
The full obituary can be read here.

For those who read French, here are a few excerpts from the 'In Memoriam' that appeared in Le Monde
 « Je porte en moi la maladie de l’islam », disait-il encore [...]Une position singulière, qui lui valut d’avoir des adversaires dans chaque camp. Mais aussi de nombreux amis et soutiens, tels l’islamologue Christian Jambet, le philosophe Jean-Luc Nancy, l’historien d’art Jean-Hubert Martin, l’essayiste Olivier Mongin, ancien directeur d’Esprit, qui lui proposa d’entrer dans le comité de rédaction de la revue. Ou encore le musicien Michel Portal, qui vint jouer Mozart et Schubert et improviser à la clarinette dans sa chambre d’hôpital, afin d’apaiser les souffrances de cet irréductible amoureux des arts. 
The rest can be read here.

French philosopher and friend Jean-Luc Nancy wrote an hommage, in which he noted that:
Tu es parti pour ton dernier voyage, Abdelwahab. Comme tous tes voyages il a déjà son retour en lui [...] De tous tes voyages tu reviens, à Paris, Tunis ou Tanger, à Rome, Le Caire, Berlin ou Résafé (souviens toi) parce que dans tous tu rencontres le retour éternel du même, de ce même qui n’est jamais identique, chaque fois nouveauté d’une même présence, chaque fois inscription d’un trait de la même présence. Dans la suite de tes poèmes son nom est Aya, une femme, quelqu’une, toutes, nous tous. « Tu es parti avec le poème / et tu resteras avec nous à jamais » - c’est toujours toi qui le dis et nous le récitons avec toi.»
Just three weeks before his death, Abdelwahab Meddeb recorded his last radio contribution for Medi Radio, where he had a series on Islamic civilization, broadcasted every Saturday evening. His last meditation can be heard here.