Mohamed Wajdi Ben Hammed, “Dispossession and Hybridity: The Neoliberal Moroccan City in Mohammed Achaari’s Literary Enterprise”, Arab Studies Journal (Fall, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Mohamed Wajdi Ben Hammed (MWBH): This article stems from one of my streams of research, namely modern Arabic literature and cinema’s engagement with neoliberal globalism. I am interested in how novels and films from North Africa increasingly locate the formative force behind a number of sociopolitical problems in the erosion of the welfare state, increasing privatization, and the economization of all aspects of life. I think these visual and narrative texts are crucial as they put into question discourses that attempt to explain major sociopolitical issues of the region through the category of culture or local political dynamics.
For example, the Arab Spring, as it continues to unfold in Tunisia (my home country), demonstrates how the neoliberal mode of governance is a major factor posing a threat to a true democratic transition. The research of Andrea Teti, Adam Hanieh, and Colin Powers is helpful in this respect as they demonstrate how the neoliberal constraints on the Tunisian state (the prescriptive of diminishing the public sector and expanding deregulation to attract foreign investment) are specifically what obstructs the demands of the Tunisian people for social democracy and redistributive reforms. This obstruction leads to the “hollowing” of the political system, and to the disenchantment of Tunisians with a representative democracy which manifests as empty rhetoric. Yet, dominant trends in Western scholarship on Arab politics have long discussed the success or failures of democratization in the region and the popular embrace of its values through the lens of cultural compatibility, internal social systems, and regional politics, with economic liberalization as an important step in the democratic process.
Social and political commitments mark postcolonial Arabic literature. In the last three decades of artistic production in the region, literary and cinematic discourses convey an increasing mood of fragmentation, claustrophobia, existential disorientation, grotesqueness, and sexual violence, as well as the emergence of models of subjectivity that are radically disenchanted with social, cultural, and political life in the region. In the critical reception of this mood, there is a tendency to marginalize its historical roots, and interpret its qualities as Arabic experimentations with a global postmodern aesthetic. This aesthetic rejects master narratives (both ideological and formal) and, to use Jean-François Loytard’s terms, locates viable truths only in localized language games. The adoption of this critical stance can be rewarding as long as it does not lose sight of the formative historical currents behind this aesthetic. The desire to historicize this mood of Arabic novelistic production, and link it to contemporary developments in the political economy of the region, motivates this article.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
MWBH: In exploring the dramatization of the neoliberal city in Mohammed Achaari’s oeuvres, I make recourse to two bodies of literature: scholarship on the postcolonial Arabic novel by Sabry Hafez, Jaber Asfour, Muhsin al-Musawi, Abdelkebir Khatibi, and Karima Laachir; and scholarship on capitalist modernity by Anthony Giddens and, largely, Bruno Latour. The first body of literature serves to situate my analysis of Achaari’s texts as pertaining to contemporary Arabic narratives of social protest that focus on urban life in the post-liberalization period. The second body of literature supplies the theoretical framework that I adopt in my reading of Achaari’s The Arch and the Butterfly. I mainly engage Bruno Latour’s views of modernity’s “practices of translation” (which produce radical hybrids between the natural, the cultural, the global, and the local), and how they are masked and accelerated by “practices of purification” that emphasize rational order and the differentiation between categories as the hallmark of being modern. Latour’s diagnosis of modernity guides my reading of the various hybrid phenomena that populate the textual universe in Achaari’s novel and contribute significantly to the central tragedy of the narrative. The themes I analyze include the experience of dispossession in the neoliberal city, which submits to the control of foreign and local capital, as well as the issues of youth culture and youth radicalization, which are significantly influenced by these experiences.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MWBH: In my previous article, entitled “Heterotopias of the Neoliberal Egyptian State in Sonallah Ibrahim’s Narratives,” I analyzed Ibrahim’s use of space in three of his novels as a theatrical stage that exposes the multiple forms of violence the neoliberal state exerts on its population. I argued that the development of the plot in Ibrahim’s texts leads the protagonists and the readers to heterotopic sites of deviation and non-normativity that reflect the totality of the normative order which governs life in post-Nasserite Egypt. My current article follows the same line of research but focuses on the theme of hybridity in Moroccan urban life as portrayed in the work of Mohammed Achaari. I analyze how Achaari’s text links a familial tragedy to disruptive changes that are reconstituting the cultural identity of a number of Moroccan cities to become attractions for foreign capital.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MWBH: This article is relevant to scholars of Arabic literature, particularly those who adopt a comparative perspective in exploring the link between the artistic production of the region and its political economy. It may also be of interest to scholars working on the cultural effects of neoliberalism in Arab countries.
This article aims to move beyond the formalistic, close-reading approach in analyzing modern Arabic literature. It does this by adopting a theoretical framework that connects the unifying reality of capitalist modernity, the literary enterprise of the author as intervention within a cultural field, and the practices of storytelling within the text.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MWBH: I am currently researching the theme of time in Islamic mysticism. I am exploring how a number of Arab thinkers and writers in the post-1967 period engage this theme, in order to translate Existentialist and Marxist ideas into an Arabic Islamic diction, and to negotiate the experience of radical disenchantment with the post-socialist state. I continue my research into literary questioning of the neoliberal state, focusing, however, on the themes of time and temporality. I analyze how this pre-modern concept of time is engaged by the Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani to deliver an existential elegy on the passing of the Nasserite state, and to condemn the ideological realignment of Egypt with the capitalist camp under Anwar Sadat.
J: The theoretical discourse in your article seems to be focused on the questions of modernity and globalization. In what ways do these concepts inspire your work?
MWBH: I am interested in reading modern Arabic literature with an eye to the ways it interacts with, problematizes, and internalizes regimes of power and truth that are operative in a postcolonial capitalist modernity. Beyond the debates on the Western origin of the modern novel, which the analytical models of critics such as Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova animate, I am interested in how modern Arab writers engage practices of storytelling which are native to Arabic culture and its pre-modern literary tradition, adab, to dramatize a precarious postcolonial modernity that is materializing in volatile forms. Regarding modernity as a theoretical question, I find the work of Anthony Giddens, Walter Mignolo, and Sudipta Kaviraj helpful in understanding modernity not as a uniform universal concept, but as the product of both the material propagation of colonial capital and the forms of resistances and capitulations it faces in the path of its globalization. This historical itinerary makes modernity a kaleidoscopic projection appearing in different shapes and forms.
This perspective of reality must be reckoned with before the adoption of Hegelian-inspired notions of modernity as self-realization, through a dialectical historical process, of a subjectivity based on autonomy and rationalism (both a political subjectivity materialized in the modern state and a philosophical subjectivity as a new concept of the human and her ethics). In this vein, I find very helpful the line of thinking which approaches tradition and modernity as a coeval analytical pair produced by the same discursive gesture, rather than being successive historical stages. The latter stance, which is a hegemonic one, leads to the pathologizing of the question of tradition in modernity. By extension, and to use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s terms, it relegates entire populations outside the Euro-American cultural sphere to a pre-modern “waiting room of history.”
Excerpt from the article
Moving through The Arch and the Butterfly, the reader notices how the proliferation of radical hybrids intensifies with the restructuring of the Moroccan economy under global power flows. Latour remarks that the contemporary production of volatile hybrids has entered a new cycle of acceleration in the last thirty years of neoliberal triumph. The neoliberal agenda includes liquidating the public sector and opening local markets to deregulated foreign capital. This agenda submits the networks of the social to an economic engine that operates through what David Harvey called “accumulation by dispossession.” It is a regime of systematic dispossession and dangerous hybridity which leaves visible marks on social lives and local space.
In North Africa, Morocco represents a leading example of conversion to the “iron cage” of free-market economic principles. Its cities reflect how neoliberal policy prescriptions are machines producing radical hybrids. With their politicized edge, novels of social realism engage these emerging phenomena. They offer insight into the affective experiences of social conditions whose lived quality is only partially accessible to theoretical discourse. Most importantly, they offer forms of identification and misidentification that are always operative on subjectivity. In Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Latour remarks, “A work of art engages us, and if it is quite true that it has to be interpreted, at no point do we have the feeling that we are free to do ‘whatever we want’ with it. If the work needs a subjectiveinterpretation, it is in a very special sense of the adjective: we are subject to it, or rather we win our subjectivitythrough it.” Contemporary Moroccan social realist novels expose the various forms of violence inflicted on the average citizen, and thus produce a subject that is aware of the links between her daily misery and neocolonial agendas. The Arch and the Butterfly is a literary mise-en-scène of the local effects of these global dynamics. It turns the theoretical insight on neoliberal globalism into a narrative simulacrum of lived reality reflecting the work of hybridity within and without.
The novel’s focal point is the second familial narrative: the story of the protagonist, Youssef al-Firsiwi, and his son. It unfolds between Rabat and Marrakesh, two cities that are intimately present in the characters’ lives. When Youssef al-Firsiwi opens a letter that he found slipped under the door of his apartment, he is immediately transformed into a tragic hero wondering what caused his downfall. The letter reads, “Rejoice, Abu Yacine, God has honored you with your son’s martyrdom.” One line captures the perplexing nature of this turn of events: the narrator describes the strange transformation in the life of Yacine, who “had sprung from the loins of a pure socialist and died in the arms of fundamentalists.” In the protagonist’s quest to understand this radical shift, the connection between the familial tragedy and larger politics of the city become central. Youssef’s quest to understand his son’s motivations is fruitless. But the surreal conversations with his deceased son reveal a mutual sense of alienation with the quality of life in the neoliberal city.
Yacine’s death triggers the collapse of the protagonist’s marriage. Youssef becomes overwhelmed by a sense of loss that, for the first months, manifests psychosomatically as a loss of his sense of smell. After a period of grief, Youssef becomes increasingly invested in exploring the connections between spatial transformations, political events, and social conditions. He states:
Yacine, simply by being killed, became an eternal child. He transformed into a being who would accompany me, emerging from his dark world whenever he wanted, and with whom I would share the details of my daily life. . . I would talk with him for hours as I crossed Rabat from Bab Tamesna to the edge of the river, passing through Al-Nasr Street, Moulay Youssef Street, Alawite Square, and then the flower market, all the way to Al-Jazaïr Street and the offices of the newspaper where I worked. . . . Together Yacine and I commented on the roadworks we came across as we walked, or the demonstrations, or the beautiful women. Sometimes we delved into our old issues and talked about revolutions, betrayals and the death of illusions.
As the narrative unfolds, these conversations point to the urban changes occurring in the city of Marrakesh.
The novel presents Marrakesh as a city where foreign investors and their local compradors profit from increasing deregulation, bureaucratic corruption, and the availability of coercive means to refashion urban space in ways that deeply alienate the general population. These foreign and local forces employ coercion or conscription to force the inhabitants to abandon their homes as they transform certain parts of the city into a destination for Western tourists pursuing an orientalist fantasy.
The narrative provides numerous examples that depict this economic condition in the urban setting, divided between foreign flows of power and local corrupt financial rings. One of the protagonist’s friends, Ahmad Majd (himself a real estate developer), spent a considerable amount of money renovating his father’s house in the medina. The narrator notes: “As soon as the house was at its most splendid and had become the weekly meeting place for our group, one of the city’s big shots developed a taste for it and devised a number of reasons why Ahmad should sell it to him, either by force or voluntarily. He put pressure on Ahmad through his business acquaintances and his friends, using incitement and intimidations, as well as suggestions of attractive partnerships. He involved foreigners and people with power in these manoeuvres.” Because he resists pressure to sell the house, Majd becomes the target of blackmail with sex tapes and subject to threats of physical harm.
These local rings of financial crime hold a great amount of power because of their close ties to political authority and their role as compradors for foreign capital. Commenting on his refusal to renounce possession of his house, Ahmad Majd asserts that it “was among the few liberated areas of the city that rich French people had reoccupied without colonisation or a protectorate.” Here and in other places in the novel, foreign capital crystalizes as the new colonial presence.
Marrakesh emerges as a hybrid space where the modern and the historical, the local and the foreign, the authentic and the artificial, merge together violently to create a performance of a composite cultural identity that is fit for a tourist destination. The narrator states:
Marrakesh had, in fact, literally and figuratively lost its authenticity over the last ten years. Property prices shot sky high; the old houses, the riyadhs and the hotels were lost to their original owners. An earthquake shook the city, wiping away historical lanes, alleyways and neighborhoods, for palaces, restaurants, residences and guesthouses to sprout in their place. A property war broke out among the new owners, pushing them to compete in building amazing edifices suitable for their exotic dreams. They pulled ceilings, doors and mosaics from here and there, spreading fever in the joints of old houses, which had to endure the sawing, chopping and extracting of their parts. . . In this jumble, for which they received official permits as a way to restore the memory of the city, that memory was totally and permanently obliterated.
Describing urban space, Mohammed Achaari constantly evokes the image of mosaics. But he negates their aesthetic significance and emphasizes their composite reality. The act of reconstruction that brings together fragments of heterogeneous parts culminates in a culturally incongruous urban space and violated social imaginaries.