Anouar Benmalek, a writer, poet, and mathematician, has endured public condemnation and self-imposed exile for his controversial work. But in a lecture at Maison Française on Monday night, he re-visualized his place as a writer in the Arab world amid his struggles against such persecution, describing himself as a “peptimist”—a portmanteau of “pessimist” and “optimist.”
Benmalek is perhaps best known for his book “Ô Maria,” which was seen as critical of Islam. In the wake of its 2006 release, Benmalek faced an immediate backlash from media outlets throughout the Middle East, who compared him unfavorably to Salman Rushdie and Pope Benedict XVI.
“I took it badly, more especially when some of my ‘friends’ didn’t hesitate to blame me to have endangered my family by making such a book by pure selfishness of a writer,” Benmalek said. “Somebody even suggested to me without shame to write a new novel where I would explain my regrets to have written ‘Ô Maria,’ putting my error on the account of a momentary ‘blindness.’”
Benmalek refused to admit to such “blindness,” instead writing another novel, “Abduction,” about the violence of the National Liberation Front during the Algerian war of independence. Despite his love of Algeria, Benmalek said he finds it necessary to reveal the truth, however cruel, about the crimes committed by Algerians rather than bury it in the past. “Societies as those of Algeria are captive of lies: lies of the past, lies of the present which knit, the seconds helping the firsts, lies of the future,” he said.
Despite Benmalek’s seeming pessimism, his convictions are grounded in hope. Noting that the Arab world’s “aspiration to a democratic life is not yet a natural reflex,” Benmalek believes that “it is because we have a high idea of the Arab world ... that we claim that its citizens have to require and to implement for themselves the same moral and political standards they demand from the democratic countries.”
As an Arab writer who loves the Arab world and yet rejects what he calls a “culture of death” perpetuated by an aggressive minority, Benmalek has resided in France since 1992, according to Bookforum. Benmalek concludes that ethnicity is insufficient to encapsulate his identity as a writer.
Coming from a mix of Swiss, Mauritanian, Bavarian, Algerian, and Moroccan ancestry, Benmalek refuses the label of the Algerian writer, which “tries to imprison [him] in national, linguistic, and religious constraints ... in a manner of a police anthropometric,” he said. “For me, the answer is very simple: it is being simultaneously Arab and non-Arab. I claim to be an Arab when someone believes that they are insulting me for being one. I refuse to be an Arab when, for so-called ‘good’ reasons, someone wants to suck me into a xenophobic ‘Arabness’ that would cut me and distance me ontologically from others.”