Scheherazade, C’est Moi? An Interview with Amara Lakhous

Algeria was imploding into civil war in 1993 when Amara Lakhous, born in 1970 in Algiers, wrote his first novel. But no bombs go off in The Bedbugs and the Pirate, the inner monologue of a Gogolian forty- year-old post office clerk who is about to lose his job, having already lost his fiancée, his apartment, and his prospects for a life worth living. Sad stuff, but the book is laugh-out-loud funny. On his way to the brothel he visits every Thursday, religiously , the well-brought-up Hassinu the pirate (a childhood nickname), stops to buy a hostess gift for the madam, who simpers, "Oh you shouldn't have," when he hands her a bag of apples and oranges. In the mosque on Friday Hassinu wonders if the combined power of prayer from the huge crowd could be harnessed to help him win the lottery. Lakhous took this "transgressive" manuscript—a daring mix of raunchy Algerian dialect, Koranic verses and pop song lyrics—with him to Rome when Islamist death threats sent him into exile in 1995. Noting the general ignorance of things Arabic in Italy, he arranged to have it published in a bilingual Italian-Arabic edition in 1999. He entrusted the Italian translation to a Sicilian Arabist who taught him a thing or two about his own language, he says.

In Rome Lakhous, fluent in Berber, Arabic, French, and, in a very short time, Italian, as well, found work as a cultural mediator at a city-run home for new immigrants in Piazza Vittorio, the famously multicultural neighborhood. In 2001 he published an Arabic-language novel about his early exile years, How to Be Suckled by the Wolf without Getting Bit. Then, as a labor of love for Rome and for the Italian language (his bottino d'amore, he calls it, riffing on Kateb Yacine's famous quip that the French language is Algeria's butin de guerre), he spent two years rewriting the novel in Italian, for Italian readers. More soccer scores, more dialect (Roman, Neapolitan, and Milanese, after consultation with native speakers), more sharp commentary on entrenched hatreds between Italians of the north and south.

The result, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, again tells unbearably sad stories in sly comic style. There are chapter-long monologues from a déclassé Iranian master chef who can't even keep a dishwasher's job in Rome, a Peruvian home health aide who longs for children but has set a world record for abortions for fear of losing her job and being deported, a Bangladeshi grocer suspected of drug dealing when in fact he's the beneficiary of a cooperative run by his clannish countrymen. The irony is that these marginalized, often demonized immigrants are heard from at all only because there has been a murder in their midst. They are summoned as character witnesses for the sole suspect, a likable young man known as Amedeo to some, and Ahmed to others. The mystery of his identity (is he Italian or immigrant?) and his sudden disappearance (could he be on the lam after the crime?) runs through the book, as he reveals himself in a series of "Wails" to be a traumatized exile from the Algerian violence, struggling to reinvent himself despite the odds.

Clash, with its friendly satire about unfriendly people, became a best-seller in Italy, in 2006, and won two literary prizes, the Flaiano and the Racalmare-Leonardo Sciasci. The film version of the novel was scheduled to begin shooting in the streets of Rome this summer. The book has been translated into Dutch, English, and French (with publication of the latter in both France and Algeria).

Ann Goldstein's excellent English translation boils Lakhous's novel down to about one hundred thirty substantial pages. Carlo Emilio Gadda's mystery classic, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, Italian comic films of the 1950s, Sudanese author Tayeb Salih's Arabic classic Seasons of Migration to the North, the Koran, The Thousand and One Nights, and a peppering of Arab proverbs haunt the text. When Ahmed/Amedeo, still spouting one-liners in the ICU after a street accident, paraphrases Flaubert to wonder, "Scheherazade, c'est moi?" the breezy literary fusion is complete.

These days Lakhous is a cultural mediator on a wider scale. He defends Italy's growing immigrant population in the press, in public forums and even in Parliament--although he did not become an Italian citizen until Fall 2008. He has just completed a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Rome, with a thesis on living Islam as a minority. And he edits a new imprint, Shark/Gharb, under the aegis of his Italian publisher, e/o, publishing Arabic translations of modern European novels.

The day we spoke (by phone between Naples and Rome) this past June, the Italian papers had just published a map of the new detention centers for immigrants to open around the country this year, in decommissioned military bases. The maximum sentence prior to deportation had been upped from two to eighteen months. The same decree, part of a much-touted "security packet" from the new right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi, also established stiffer penalties for immigrants than for natives, for identical crimes. Suddenly it had become acceptable to scapegoat immigrants in active, even violent ways. Gypsy encampments in Naples and elsewhere were attacked and, after resident families fled in terror, burned down. And the weekend before in the multicultural Pigneto neighborhood in Rome, a group of angry young men smashed the windows of three immigrant-owned shops and struck at customers within reach, before the police chased them away.

Suzanne Ruta: In your novel an exploited Peruvian home-care worker asks, "Is it a crime to be an immigrant?" You're writing a comedy, her question is meant to sound absurd. But the joke is over. The new Italian Minister of the Interior wants to make it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant. He's talking about getting the law through Parliament this summer. Do you feel like a prophet? Or put another way, if you were writing the same book now instead of five years ago, would you still write a comedy?

Amara Lakhous: I gave an interview to the newspaper Liberazione yesterday with my analysis of the Pigneto incident. [Ed note. In this interview Lakhous rejects, in angry Italian slang, the idea that Pigneto was a private dispute. "Un cavolo!" he exclaims. "What rubbish." In fact, he says, poor Italians and immigrants, the two most vulnerable groups in society, have been set against each other in a shameful way.]

SR: As a Kabyle [Berber-speaking Algerian minority], you belong to a group whose experience of emigration goes back at least a century. Your own father was in Paris for years. What was it like for him?

AL: It was a very important experience for him. He lived badly, he was there to make money to send home. But it was also a great opportunity for him, both economically and culturally, to leave his village and go to Paris. At the Citroen plant he met other foreigners, Portuguese and Polish.

SR: A bit like you meeting Bangladeshis and Peruvians in Rome. Your mother meanwhile . . .

AL: Could neither read nor write. The French talked in colonial times about exporting civilization as now they talk about exporting democracy. But they never sent my mother to school. She was a great lady, very intelligent. She raised nine children. Her only language was Berber. My father spoke a limited amount of Arabic, with a Berber accent that made people laugh at times.

SR: Did you always know you wanted to write?

AL: Literature first came to me in spoken form. In our house we were very late in acquiring a TV set. In the evenings my sister used to read to us and tell us stories. She read us great French novels. I was very struck by them, and then I learned to read myself and devoured French and Arab works and others in translation. Around age fifteen, sixteen I began to want to tell stories too.

SR: When Ahmed/Amedeo in your novel exclaims, "Scheherazade, c'est moi," he's paraphrasing Flaubert saying "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." What's going on?

AL: Flaubert is a padre nobile for me. Madame Bovary is a great work because it tells the story of women's half of the universe. I read it at fifteen, thinking, Oh my God, women exist too! In traditional Muslim upbringing, but also in Italy and other societies, all power and primacy is with the male. Reading Madame Bovary opened my eyes, with its description of a woman, a society, a reality. Flaubert took five years to write it, an enormous undertaking, he filled two thousand file cards with information about his characters and settings, it's all deeply researched. And then when the book was published he was accused of corrupting the morals of his readers, he was subjected to a trial but fortunately he was acquitted.

SR: So Scheherazade c'est moi, is you? AL: For me writing is never a question of inspiration, where you shut yourself up in a room, not even poetry. You have to get out and ask questions and take responsibility for your work. Zola's Germinal also impressed me deeply. And Camus, his private brand of existentialism, although during the war of liberation Sartre, not Camus, took a strong stand against torture.

SR: You studied philosophy in college, in the midst of civil war. What was that like?

AL: It was very dangerous. The fundamentalists considered philosophy to be against religion, against God, but for me it was an important choice, precisely to be able to understand and discuss these issues. Philosophy gave me the tools to develop a critique of Algerian society. The fundamentalists want to imitate, not to study. It's madness, this attempt to live in the fourteenth century, now. But it was a difficult time for philosophy. By the time I graduated with my degree, the situation was very dicey. I concentrated on contemporary philosophy. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sartre, existentialism helped us to think about the context of fear and death in which we lived.

SR: And then you went to work for the radio? An act of defiance, given the times?

AL: Between summer 1994 and summer 1995 I worked for the radio, a cultural program, I tried to offer a bit of social and cultural criticism, but I had problems with the censors. The radio was under state control. The programs were not live but prerecorded. On some occasions they simply cut out the parts they didn't like, but three or four times they cancelled the entire broadcast. At one point I invited a woman friend, a feminist, to talk about the Algerian Family Code [ed: passed in 1984, severely restricted women's rights]. The station director was not happy, the program could not be aired.

SR: And then you had to leave because of death threats?

AL: I went into exile, a true exile, nine years. My mother came to Rome for a few months in 2002. I was away from my father that entire time. Leaving was an absolute necessity, if I wanted to save my life. I had to make the choice. But I don't regret it. I'm really happy with the way things have worked out. I was able to study. I have just completed my doctoral thesis and will defend it in September at the Sapienza (University of Rome). [His defense was successful.]

SR: You have spoken about a generation of Algerians sacrificed, your own generation, born 1970 and after. Could you explain what you meant?

AL: My generation was in a very difficult situation, very complex, in conflict with our parents' generation. The country was their war booty but not ours. We couldn't compare with them. We had not taken part in the war [of liberation, 1954–62]. And we had a sense of guilt because we hadn't fought in the war. We were born too late for that.

SR: And you must have lost friends on both sides.

AL: Yes, friends were killed, some were policemen too. It was a civil war. The majority of those who perished were young men.

SR: And what about the next generation? The harraga, as they're called, young men in their teens and twenties now, who set out in little boats and wind up in the Almeria morgue, or Libyan prisons, or detention centers in southern Italy, or in the tent city in Eboli that the local government is going to break up this week. Who in the world is looking out for these young men?

AL: There's a great paradox. These boys leave for Sardinia from Annaba or other Algerian coastal towns. From Annaba they can reach Sardinia in twelve hours. Meanwhile Algeria exports natural gas to Italy, Algeria is Italy's second largest supplier. And the price is high as you know now. But Algeria also exports these boys.

SR: The country is rich but these boys are poor.

AL: The earnings from our oil don't go into useful development projects, but into corruption and an entrenched patronage system.

SR: A buzz word in Italy is integrazione. In the US we talk about assimilation, which is sometimes construed negatively. It means you have to forget where you come from and adopt the ways of the dominant culture, as it's called.

AL: There's a lot of confusion over integration. Italians don't know what they want. They want children to go to school and study and integrate. But the politicians have other ideas about the schools. A city councilor in Turin just proposed a law to establish quotas for immigrant children in public schools, at 10% in high schools. If the percentage is higher, the argument goes, the level of learning drops for Italian children.

SR: But doesn't this have to be decided at the national level?

AL: It's a proposal, from Turin. That's just the start of it.

SR: And what about the decree issued this week, making immigrants serve longer prison sentences than native Italians, for identical crimes?

AL: In other words, condemning people not for what they do but who they are. This law is very disturbing. It makes your status a crime. These measures to combat illegal immigration also harm refugees. This country is a signatory to the Geneva Accords. And there's worse.

If sailors or fishermen see a boat with immigrants in danger, under the law of the sea they are bound to give assistance. But it's against Italian law to promote illegal immigration, and in fact two years ago some fishermen were charged with this crime. It makes fisherman and sailors reluctant to give aid in emergencies.

This is the hidden face of the West that defends human rights. Not only in Italy but in other countries. In the airports there are rooms, zones, for people asking for political asylum, who are simply not allowed to enter the country, in contravention of the Geneva Accords of 1951, In Italy there is no law for refugees, they are treated like ordinary immigrants.

SR: But is there no recognition in Italy of the immigrant contribution, the cultural contribution, included?

AL: There's great hypocrisy. On the economic level, immigrants make a great contribution to society, but at the level of rights, they are not citizens. You can be twenty years in Italy, working and paying taxes, and still not have the right to vote in local elections. And children born to immigrant parents, children who don't know their parents' country, don't speak the language, have no right to Italian nationality, which is determined by blood, not place of residence at time of birth.

There is no consciousness of the benefits of immigration in Italy. People are scared, they look for the negative aspect. Italians have a problematic relation with themselves. The rift between north and south: the Northern League wants to create its own state. Immigrants bear the consequences of these conflicts.

SR: Let's talk about your novel. Your protagonist, Amed' as he's called by Roman friends, who drop the final o in Amedeo, seems to me like a Christ figure, He takes the suffering of everyone on himself, immigrants from various countries whom he helps to cope with life in Rome, and also the "sacrificed" generation of Algerians for whom he is secretly in mourning.

AL: (laughs) Amed' is a metaphor for a person seen by other people. There's a saying "The absent are always wrong." I wanted to explain my conception of identity, as something that is never closed. There's this misunderstanding about him, is he Ahmed or Amed'?. Some people take him for Italian. It was my way of showing that identity is open. If I go to Germany and speak German, a part of me becomes German.

SR: The novel is full of booby traps. Pizza, the universal symbol of Italy, is attacked in the very first sentence. And the wail (ululato) is a great invention. How do you write about pain and grief without being heavy and melancholic? When Amed' quotes Tahar Djaout [Algerian novelist and poet murdered in 1993] and then howls like a wolf the whole night through, it's a lament for all the writers killed in the last war.

AL: I was being ironic. There has to be a bit of comedy always . . . Otherwise things get dull. I wanted to write an intelligent book that offered food for thought and raised questions.

SR: Your two published novels have one thing in common. Both put forward protagonists who hide their deepest feelings. Hassinu in The Bedbugs and the Pirate hides his rage under a layer of courtesy. Ahmed, in Clash of Civilizations, hides his desperation, his grief, from even his Italian wife. And both men suffer from stomach pains, a sign of repressed anxieties. I know you are not in favor of autobiography in literature, but what is going on here? I hope I'm not being indiscreet.

AL: It's true the books have this point in common. I was wrestling with the question of memory. Memory is fundamental, it can function as a resource if you are able to explore the past or it can become an obstacle.

SR: Depending on?

AL: On how we choose to live it. Whether we make it an obsession, or, however painful it may be, are able to turn the page. A Serbian author living in Italy, Pedrag Matvejec, put it well. He said, they keep telling us to turn the page. But the fact is that before we turn the page, we have to read it.

SR: So that's why Amed insists that truth—by which he means knowledge of the past—is not liberating, but a chain that can lead to slavery! Is that what you had in mind, too, in the story published on your web site, about the young Egyptian woman living in Rome whose husband insists she wear the veil? She decides to go ahead and dye her hair blonde like Marilyn Monroe even though no one will see it. She's not a prisoner of the past, or trapped in a closed identity. Is this the first chapter of a novel?

AL: (laughs) No, although it would be nice if it were. Maybe later on. Right now I'm working on a very interesting novel about Italian immigrants in Tunisia when it was a French colony. It's a part of their history Italians don't like to talk about. It's a real challenge. I will have to go to Tunisia to do research for this book.

SR: What language will you write it in?

AL: In Italian, since it concerns Italians. If I write about Algeria again I'll write in Arabic. I'm not through with Arabic.

SR: Clash of Civilizations has characters who under stress break out into Neapolitan, Milanese or Roman dialect. You have a preference for dialect.

AL: Language stays alive through use. The people who speak in dialect invent images and metaphors. In my next novel I'll be working in Sicilian dialect, since so many Sicilians emigrated to Tunisia at one time.

SR: There's one word of Algerian Arabic in The Bedbugs and the Pirate not translated into Italian in the bilingual edition: Shkuppi. You turn it into an adverb, an adjective . . . it's even the last word of the book, a sort of rallying cry.

AL: Shkuppi is Algerian slang for penis. There's a problem in Arabic literature with mentioning the sexual organs. But in popular culture there are plenty of terms . . . It's actually a metaphor.

SR: I read it was something fishermen find in their nets and throw back into the sea.

AL: That's right.

SR: Tell me about the latest doings at Shark/Gharb, the new affiliate of your Italian publisher. You're in charge of the imprint.

AL: We're working on setting up a distribution network. We have published Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante in Arabic and this summer we're bringing out Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo by Vincenzo Cerami. Next year we plan to publish Arabic translations of La Festa di Ritorno by Carmine Abate, about a Calabrian child whose father was an immigrant in France, and Nordest by Massimo Carlotto, a roman noir about corruption in Northeast Italy.

SR: There too! What about prices. Can people in Arab countries afford these books?

AL: They sell for twelve euros in Europe and only four in Algeria, we knocked two-thirds off the price.

SR: And why novels? A democratic art form?

AL: Novels can contain a whole society.

SR: You talked about publishing Italian translations of Arabic- language authors later on. Could you give us some names?

AL: Bashir Mefti is a friend. An Algerian who has been translated into French. And Karman Dirabbi, a Tunisian, has also been translated into French.

SR: Have you read Gomorrah [Roberto Saviano's highly personal expose of Camorra activity in Campania and worldwide]? Your secretive Amed' tells people who ask about his origins, "I'm from the South." Saviano says he can't say that, it's too rhetorical.

AL: A brilliant book. A very strong book.

SR: The other day I heard a Naples journalist say what you often say about Algeria—such a beautiful land with so much going for it, and yet life is unlivable.

AL: Naples and Algeria have the same kind of trouble.