Abdelwahab Meddeb on Arabic

This morning, for the sheer pleasure of it, I translated two pages by the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb, taken from his 1886 book Phantasia, & representing the beginning of a longer meditation on language, especially on his own multilinguism (Arabic & French) and on writing in Arabic.

from PHANTASIA, chapter 2.

In the flux of thought, the fragment imposes itself. Between silence and the pause, the verse speaks the discontinuity that cuts me off from the world. Writing drifts from language to language. It translates my double genealogy. The subject bears witness. The hand traces. The written, making allowance for the truth perceived by the senses, accelerates the journey of my mind between languages. Though the languages be multiple, there is but one table. The part of it that I retrieve through a decision that defies the will, brings writing back to an anterior passivity. An active passivity, don’t forget that, you, a man practiced in the unification of contraries. Whatever you’ll do, you won’t break the circle of the gift. I watch the sky uncovering itself. The sun drags bits of tulle between clouds to mend the firmament. With one hand I draw the curtain. With the other I open the book. I come across the “liminary”, engraved in memory, an incipit that excavates the arabesque of its capital letters from the azure and gold of the illumination. Confronted with the beautiful page, I am dazzled by the letters that introduce “The Cow,” the longest sura, placed at the head of the Book. The initiatic letters — الم aleph, lâm, mîm —open five other suras. Scattered initials, reticent to make up a word. Will I submit them to the sovereignty of meaning, between effusion and plenitude, between wealth and blame? Will I sound their mystery? On the shores of pain and promise, in the negative interrogative mode, the aleph, the laureate, stands up straight. It is the one that subsists and encompasses. It throws its straight shadow upon the signs that transcribe the language. In it, multiple, moving points. It is the principle from which the letters derive, as the numbers derive from the one. It commands the alphabet to reside in the twenty-eight lunar mansions. The lâm is the letter of proximity and autonomy, of union and of separation. Decomposed into l.â.m., it contains the aleph, the first, and mîm, the integral. In its median position, the aleph is a bridge between the beginning and completion. The book starts with three letters that span the three degrees of the voice. While the aleph is produced far back in the throat, the lam is articulated by the middle of the palate and the mîm by the lips. Orphaned, these three letters suggest from the start the trilateral rule that distributes most of the radicals in the language. They are enthroned above the words. When you pronounce them, the flesh shivers and thought lays its first stone. In each of these letters the verb is incarnated. They are haunted by Hebrew. From one letter to the other, the same thread weaves different cloths. To the aleph straight as a one, ا , corresponds the figure with three members of the oblique aleph, א. The one grows under the shadow of the other under a sky crossed by the lightning bolt that whips my blood in the heart of the desert. Behind those alphabets I look toward the foundational Orient. Between the two rivers, the fertile loam draws the nomad, as soon as he leaves the hostile climate, like it did the Akkadian ancestor. Invoking the god Shamash, patron of travelers, I recognize the Arabic word for sun, the ogre that devours my herds on the arid steppe. In my dialect the Akkadian voice illuminates each morning. As soon as I name the sun I invent writing. The clay baked in the heat of the day rests in an earthen tomb. Despite its vaunted friability, I exhume it barely chipped. The tablet on which the stylus had traced the phonographs of Sumeria fills my hand. I leave Babylonia and the Semitic domains to celebrate the announcement of language by a people gone now for several millennia. Its ascendancy, its flowering remain obscure. Claimed by no one, Sumeria is everyone’s heritage.
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