“Arabic as a Bridge to the Rest of Africa” by Richard Ali


Presented at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair 2016 [28th April, 2016]

[Opening greetings.]

I wish to start my talk by reading from a Nigerian letter. It is not the type of Nigerian letter you usually get in your emails, asking for you to send money to someone in return for a share of millions of dollars. This one is, instead, a precious gift from me to you. It will also serve as my personal salute to each of you gathered here. Permit me to read—

Praise be to Allah who created writing as a means of communication between distant men, a vehicle of greeting amongst the scholars, and of sorrow amongst the unlettered; verily, had it not been for it, communication would have ceased and transactions would have been impossible.

As some of you might have recognised, it is part of the opening invocation of a letter from one person to another. We must pause at the centrality of learning and particularly, of writing, to the person who wrote this invocation—it is important to my theme. What you might not know is that this particular Nigerian letter was written six hundred and twenty five years ago and that it was written in formal Arabic. Now, let me tell you who the parties were. For the one part, the Nigerian part, there was Uthman ibn Idris, Mai of the Kanem-Borno Empire. The recipient of the letter was Az-Zahir Sayf ad-Din Barquq, a Circassian who at that time was Sultan of Egypt. Seven centuries ago, my ancestors and yours wrote letters to each other, prizing the written word greatly. I wish to tell you the reason for this—it is because words are boundless and expand the scope of the lived experience, giving instant access to experiences that no one man, however well-travelled he may be, can have. Languages other than one’s own, such as Arabic is to most Africans, is thus a type of passport—for want of a better word, I go with that one. But it is not a passport to a specific destination. It is a passport to a place of culture—to everywhere.

This early talk of passports brings me to mention where I am from. I am an African from Nigeria, and I confess to proudly holding a Nigerian passport. Passports, by their nature, tend to separate people into countries in the way widely dispersed languages, like Arabic which is our concern here, joins people together. Yet this country I call my own is but a young country, and its official name is only fifty six years old. So the name “Nigeria”, like many other nations—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Republic of Kenya for example—is a recent convenience. Yet, I am from an ancient country which was named on the oldest Arab maps as the bilad-as Sudan—on account of the dark complexion of my people—and I am correctly from the central Sudan, which is where today’s Nigeria is located. In the old time of the old people I come from, the tricks of geography and cardinal points and nationalisms and other –isms that have given us these fixed identities of today did not quite exist. We named others based on their characteristics as we observed them and others did same for us. Northern Nigeria, where I am from, was known as kasar Hausa, which translates to “the land of the Hausa language speakers”—it did not mean everyone was ethnically Hausa, but only that a language had joined us. I have given this early digressions in other to show that in entering into my theme, the first thing we must dynamite to bits is the idea, and I admit this misunderstanding is complicated and attenuated, that the African and the Arab are Others to each other. Practically, is the Arabian Peninsula, divided from Africa by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a breakaway plate from the African continental shelf, or is it a break away from the Asian shelf from which it is almost separated by the Gulf of Oman? Let me tell you, this is a question for the geologists but I do not care for their answer in the same way I do not care very much about passports and modern countries and nations. What I think is that we all share a vast tract of the world, in which God has made all free to move and learn and interact.

Having established this—I wish to speak briefly about key figures that have been human bridges between the African world and the Arab world. As a novelist, I am interested in hybridity and the overlaps of culture and identity. In these people, we can find curious points of contact that are vast fields for mining the future of our relations. In these people, we can read the past to define the future. They are the modern descendants of Mai Idris ibn Uthman who seven hundred years ago wrote a letter to his brother, the Mamluk Sultan Az-Zahir Sayf ad-Din Barquq.

The first of these is an eighteenth century mathematician from Katsina, a city in Nigeria known for its learning. His name was Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Fulani al-Kishnawi and while we are not sure when he was born, we know that he died in Cairo in 1741. Al-Kishnawi was, in the manner of learned men in the times in which he lived, an astronomer, mathematician, mystic, and an astrologer. Of particular interest to him and the matter for which we remember him is the mathematics [or perhaps we shall say the mathe-magics?] of Magic Squares. Group Theory is a major part of mathematics, particularly of statistical analysis today. In fact, the Encryption Key algorithms that ensure digital security—from Gmail passwords to Western Union transaction keys—flows from Group Theory, a field within which al-Kishnawi worked. His reputation as a mathematician in the study of Magic Squares rests today on his book Bahjat al-afaq wa-idah al-labs wa-l-ighlaq fi `ilm al-huruf wa-l-awfaq (A Compilation of the Occult in Egypt), published in Arabic in Cairo in 1751 from a copy dictated to his disciple Muhammad al-Makkawi al-Fayumi. An incomplete copy of the work is available at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London. Al-Kishnawi was of the Fulani ethnic group and indeed, the Arabic script has been used to write in African languages such as Hausa and Swahili. Arabic used in this manner is called ajami. For example, the jurisprudential works of Sheikh Uthman Fodio, who founded the Sokoto Caliphate, as well as of his descendants, even the poetry of his daughter Nana Asmau, were largely written in ajami.

The issue of Palestine remains one of immense polarisation in the Arab world, and the cause of Palestine is one that all conscious citizens of the world, especially of postcolonial countries in a time of neo-colonialism of various types, ought to rally around. It is in the agitation of Palestine that I find my second African example of a bridge—a cultural and political bridge—existing between the Arab world and Africa. What is more, the exemplar, Fatima Mohammed Barnawi, is still very much alive. The 1967 war which saw the Israeli defeat of a pan-Arab army, is correctly known as al-Naksah—a setback—for it seemed as if legitimacy had been granted to the earlier dispossession and catastrophe—an-Nakba—of the Palestinian people. Fatima Barnawi was the very first Palestinian woman to be arrested by the Israelis for planting a bomb at a cinema in October 1967 in protest at a propaganda film celebrating the Setback. This woman, born in 1942 in Jerusalem, is descended from Bornoan grandparents, yet so committed was she to the Arab cause in the liberation of Palestine that she was willing to organize a paramilitary operation in Israel and suffer the consequence of this action bravely. There was recently a documentary on her on Aljazeera.

What I am saying in these examples, and these are only two distinguished examples of thousands, is that we must reject the idea that the Arab and the African are people in opposition to each other. We have shared a lot in the past, as we see in the contributions of the mathematician al-Kishnawi, and we have a lot in common as we can see from the brave pro-Palestinian protest of Fatima al-Barnawi. I shall now turn my eye to the issue of the Arabic language specifically, in the context of literature, for this is a Book Fair and I am here as an African publisher.

Perhaps the best known book from the Arab world is the al-kitab ‘alf layla wa-layla, that collection of tales from many places also called The Arabian Nights, but more correctly One Thousand and One Nights. It came to the attention of the literary world when eighteenth century English adventurer Richard Burton made his celebrated English translation. Yet, the stories in the collection have been well known across Africa from Djenne to Darfur to Mombasa for while it was trade that first brought Arabs to my continent, and while the spread of Islam became another impetus, it is not only goods and prayers that were exchanged. We exchanged poetry and stories and blood too. The recent troubles in Mali have highlighted the fact that the city of Timbuktu has been a centre of learning of the same rank as Alexandria and Baghdad. The almost-lost heritage of African scholarship that was saved for humanity by the bravery of curators like Abdulkadir Haidara was written mostly in the Arabic language. Think of it—thousands of Arabic manuscripts that have been lost to the world might be hidden amongst the tomes owned by scholars of cities in Africa, cities like Timbuktu that is rightly celebrated, as well as Katsina, and Zaria where I studied, which have been seats of learning for countless centuries. The significance of this, as I do not need to reiterate, is that the Renaissance in Europe, which saw the cultural ascendance of Europe and its younger nephew, America, was kicked off by the discovery of Arabic manuscripts of the great classical Greek thinkers including Aristotle and Euclid. We must not forget the enlightened support of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, who built the Bayt al-Hikmah—the House of Wisdom—a library-cum-university in Baghdad. These works translated by Caliphs al-Mansur and al-Mamun and their successors were rediscovered and re-translated a millennium later by European thinkers without which there might have been no end to the superstitions of the Middle Ages and its residual dark European primitivism. I restate this to show the great importance that I, as an African writer who is fascinated by scholarship, attaches to your language. And I wonder—what other great treasures in books in Arabic lie un-translated and “lost” all across Africa even now waiting to yield their secrets to the world?

Mention must now be made of one of the world’s greatest writers, now late, who is remembered for his famous Cairo Trilogy—the novels Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. I mean, of course, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, just two years after my countryman, Wole Soyinka, was the first African to win it in 1986. Mahfouz was an Arab, and an African, and we see what he thought about the many links between us for it informed the topic of his Nobel Lecture where he speaks of being a child of two civilizations—the Pharoanic and the Islamic, which are the African and the Arab really. In the lecture, he says—“It was my fate, ladies and gentlemen, to be born in the lap of these two civilizations, and to absorb their milk, to feed on their literature and art.” Naguib Mahfouz’s novels are an homage to old Cairo—that great cosmopolis where ideas and people from all over the world mixed and created something distinct—a bridge of civilizations. The great Arab public intellectual, Edward Sa’id, also lived in Cairo after the loss of Palestine and his last memoir, Out of Place, attests to the vibrancy of the city, its mix of people and ideas, its intersection, its bridging of many identities.

Now, in discussing our links, we must also talk about the issue of terrorism and violent extremism—which is what put the precious manuscripts of Timbuktu in such great danger a few years back. Violent extremism, by people who have misinterpreted their religion, has become a major source of concern across Africa particularly the countries bordering the Sahel. Regardless of what ones politics is, the destruction of books and items of cultural heritage as has been attempted by armed terrorists in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and further out, in Syria and Afghanistan, is unacceptable. This situation highlights another way in which Arabic can be a bridge to Africa considering that violent extremism has afflicted countries in Africa and has seen the erosion of the cultural value of Arab identity all over the world, leading to unhelpful and formulaic reductions of which American presidential contender Donald Trump, embodies. Even a week ago, an Iraqi student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, was thrown out of a Southwest airline flight for speaking Arabic. Violent extremism has fuelled a dangerous Arabphobia. Yet, across Africa, many believe that Arabic is the language of God. That the Holy Quran was revealed and written in Arabic adds a great stature to the Arabic language, making it a very good resource for countering violent extremism. Logical as this is, and with embassies of every Arab country in my country and in countries across Africa, we have not seen the sort of bold and rugged deployment of the Arabic language in countering violent extremism. I know that this is a book fair, not an arena for politics, but this issue is very important in the matter of building bridges to Africa. For we who love books, who write them, who read them, are often the first victims of extremism.

As my talk winds to a close, I must recognize the challenges that are inevitable in building a bridge to the rest of Africa using Arabic. Some of these are historic and certainty of causes is difficult even as the offense remains, but some unfortunate conducts between us are recent and still grate even today. As an African and a book lover, I cannot forget the outrage done in 642 AD when Amr ibn al-As, the governor of Egypt, oversaw the destruction by fire of the great Library of Alexandria. It is reported that the rationale for this crime went thus: books that are in agreement with Islam were superfluous, those that disagreed with religion were blasphemous, therefore, no matter what, they should be destroyed. When French general Napoleon Bonaparte blew up the nose of the Sphinx built by my people, when Ansar Dine seeks to set fire to precious manuscripts in Timbuktu or when Boko Haram assassinates scholars and rejects learning for which the Holy Prophet [SAW] says all are to seek “even unto China”, they draw back to the example of Amr al-As and the burning of Africa’s great library at Alexandria. In the same Egypt, the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960’s saw the flooding of precious Nubian monuments and artefacts of great value to Africanist studies for an engineering purpose that has in fact led to huge environmental issues. Why this destruction of the artefacts of my heritage, I ask, can someone explain why? And of course, there is the issue of the Arab slave trade which went on for centuries and saw the loss of millions of African lives conducted by Arab middlemen. These issues need to be overcome by dialogue and concrete action based on a need for closure in building this bridge of ours, if this bridge is to be strong and sturdy.

There will be many bridges to Africa, and it is important that Arabic be one of these. I have come all the way here to Abu Dhabi from Abuja, Nigeria, to say there is a lot that has joined us together in the past and a lot more we can learn from each other. I have brought up the example of my fellow African Muhammad al-Kishnawi, and of my sister Fatima Barnawi. I have started my talk with greetings from one king to another seven hundred years ago. I have talked about African seats of learning—Timbuktu and Zaria and Alexandria—where bridges have existed. We have talked a bit about violent extremism. It remains, in closing, to speak about the practical challenges to this Arabic bridge that we wish to build. For me, as a publisher, it is the twin problem of Translation and Distribution. Translation of the works of talented African writers like Nigeria’s Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Kenya’s Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Uganda’s Nansubuga Makumbi and their peers to Arabic is immensely expensive and indeed prohibitive and it halts our desire to make these books available to you just as it also makes our desire to read your books near impossible. A lot of publishers, for example my Algerian friend Hassane Bennamane of Dar el-Oumma, Mohammed El-Baaly’s Egyptian Sefsefa publishing house and of course, Marwan, son of the late Mahmoud Adwan who continues to run his father’s Syrian publishing legacy, are doing a great job in publishing new writing in Arabic. I would love to read these books in translation. Perhaps the apparatchiks of Arab culture gathered here would like to discuss a Translations Bureau which will be the blocks with which we build our bridge? I pledge my support and participation. And if such a service exists, I would like to know about it. Yet Translation is but one half of the problem. A serious-minded roundtable might be necessary between Arab and African publishers, perhaps on the sidelines of a book fair, so we can come up with agreements to distribute each other’s books in our countries. My company, Parresia Publishers Ltd, as well as Cassava Republic and Farafina Press in Nigeria, as well as other African publishing houses like Rwanda’s Huza Press, Uganda’s BN Poetry Foundation, Keyna’s Kwani? are interested in sharing literature across borders. The purpose of words is to break down borders, after all. A lot is being done already to bridge the gap using Arabic. I belong to the Jalada Writers Collective based in Nairobi, Kenya and our latest anthology, the Translations Issue, features an Arabic translation of a story, Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ, written originally in Kikuyu by distinguished Professor Ngugi wa Thiongo. The translation was made by Nazar Mubarak al Emam, a Sudanese translator who lives in this very city of Abu Dhabi, and was edited by Adil Babikir, also a Sudanese copywriter based here in the UAE. And, just a few months ago, I am proud to say that an older friend of mine and senior academic, Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, translated al-kitab ‘alf layla wa-layla to Hausa as Dare Dubu da Daya, employing the Roman script. Perhaps in future an Arab translator will undertake the translation of the classic Hausa texts—Abubakar Imam’s Magana Jari Ce and Ruwan Bagaja as well as John Tafida’s Jiki Magayi—to Arabic?

We, Africans, recognize the importance and potentials of Arabic and have indeed started building the bridge already from our end of the pond. But for this bridge to be completed, it is necessary for our brothers and sisters in the Arab world to also reach out across the pond of identity and history and politics with understanding and mutual respect and start building from their end of the pond. Then we can meet in the middle and shake hands and say; “My brother! My sister!” It is my hope that this bridge will be built by us, the young people of Africa and Arabia, in my lifetime.

I thank you all for listening to me. I thank, once again, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, under whose patronage this book fair is holding. Thank you very much. Shukhran.

Richard Ali (@richardalijos) is a Nigerian novelist, poet and lawyer. He has participated in various writing workshops across the continent and in 2012, he co-founded Parresia Publishers Ltd, which went on to publish great African voices including Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Helon Habila. He was former Editor of Sardauna Magazine and of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine. He currently serves on the EXCO of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and on the Board of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation. He is a member of the Jalada Writers Collective.