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Fictions of African Dictatorship

Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power


Edited By Charlotte Baker and Hannah Grayson

Fictions of African Dictatorship examines the fictional representation of the African dictator and the performance of dictatorship across genres. The volume includes contributions focusing on literature, theatre and film, all of which examine the relationship between the fictional and the political. Among the questions the contributors ask: what are the implications of reading a novel for its historical content or accuracy? How does the dictator novel interrogate ideas of veracity? How is power performed and ridiculed? How do different writers reflect on questions of authority in the postcolony, and what are the effects on their stories and modes of narration? This volume untangles some of the intricate workings of dictatorial power in the postcolony, through twelve close readings of works of fiction. It interrogates the intersections between real and literary space, exploring censorship, political critique and creative resistance. Insights into a wide range of lesser known texts and contexts make this volume an original and insightful contribution to scholarship on representations of dictatorship.

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2. From Dictatorship to Self-Constitution: Historical Fiction and Aesthetics of Tyranny in Bensalem Himmich’s Le Calife de l’épouvante (Khalid Lyamlahy)

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2    From Dictatorship to Self-Constitution: Historical Fiction and Aesthetics of Tyranny in Bensalem Himmich’s Le Calife de l’épouvante

On fiction and dictatorship

In his introduction to a special issue of Research in African Literatures exploring the question of dictatorship in a series of African literary texts, Josaphat B. Kubayanda notes that the different articles in the collection suggest that ‘there is in the literary discourse of post-independence Africa, a realist strategy that allows readers and critics to remap and redirect attention to the dictatorial and oppressive space of the real Africa and the poet’s Africa’.1 When investigating the figures and representations of dictatorship, this strategy, which operates more specifically in novels and fictional writings, unveils ‘a crucial link between ethics, aesthetics, and politics’ and ends up creating ‘complex problems of interpretation’.2 One of these problems originates in the fact that the efforts by African postcolonial writers ‘to remap and redirect attention’ to the dictatorial space have often been misunderstood or at least underestimated in their very complexity. Far from being specific to African writings, this problem finds similar echoes in the interpretation and reception of what was called ‘the dictator-novel genre’ in Latin American literature. Often dated back to Guatemalan Miguel Angél Asturias’ seminal novel El Señor Presidente (1946), the Latin ← 37 | 38 → American dictator novel had its crucial moment in the mid-1970s with subsequent works by Alejo Carpentier (Cuba), Gabriel García Márquez (Columbia), Augusto Roa Bastos (Paraguay), and Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes (Mexico). In The Voice of the Masters, an acclaimed collection of essays about writing and authority in modern Latin American literature, Roberto González Echevarría refers to the Arabic background of the dictator figure in the Hispanic tradition. He outlines its very intricacy as it becomes, in modern literature, ‘a figure as complex and, if one wants, abstract as Don Juan, and perhaps just as original and philosophically rich’.3 The parallel with the figure of Don Juan is compelling as it opens up the representation of dictatorship to the field of theatrical performance and hints at the rewriting of literary myths. This manifold complexity of dictatorial literature is reinforced by two further factors. The first has to do with the ambivalence of the term ‘dictatorship’ itself and the type of regimes it designates in political science. As noted by Juan J. Linz, the term, from its original Roman meaning referring to a limited and extraordinary emergency rule, ‘has become a loosely used term for opprobrium’, increasingly ‘hard to distinguish from other types of autocratic rule when it lasts beyond a well-defined situation’.4 To return to literature which might be less sensitive to this semantic ambivalence, the second factor is generated by a form of conceptualization since ‘novels dealing with dictators do not establish clear-cut distinctions between the various types that appear in history but tend to deal more abstractly with authority figures and with the question of authority’.5 Moreover, the intersection between fictions of dictatorship and postcolonial power throw into question the efficiency of literary strategies in resisting authoritarianism, notably the metaphorical techniques used to circumvent censorship, and the fictional portrait of the dictator as a device for political critique. While fictions of dictatorship often mobilize the subversive power of description, parody, and humour ← 38 | 39 → to deform the rhetoric of dictatorial power, there is a risk of reproducing the idioms and aesthetics of the ruler’s discourse, leading to ‘a form of reciprocal paralysis’,6 which was described by Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe as ‘impouvoir’ [impotence].7 In short, dictatorial literature remains a very challenging subject not only in its definition and strategies of representation but also in its ethical, aesthetical and political interpretations.

As Josaphat B. Kubayanda demonstrates in another article, modern African dictator novels share with their Latin American counterparts the same concerns about post-independence disillusionments and new performances of tyranny, whether social or political. Grouping together African and Latin American experiences of dictatorial literature, Kubayanda argues that ‘literary works from those regions portray totalizing codes that pinpoint an unfinished business of decolonization’.8 This idea of an unfinished business of decolonization – which requires a permanent reworking of literary materials to explore, denounce and tackle the persistent discourses of tyranny and despotism – can be compared to the experience of dictatorial literature in the Arab world.

According to Housam Aboul-Ela:

although there has not been a moment of explosion in the genre of the Arabic dictator novel like the Latin American moment of the mid-1970s, the specter of dictatorship has pervaded most of Arab (or at least North African) fiction as a theme in the past several decades. (2011)

Egyptian fictional writings, for instance, have constantly included representations and performances of authoritarianism: from Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s seminal Children of Our Alley to Gamal El-Ghitani’s allegorical Zaynī Barakāt and more recently Alaa Al-Aswany’s acclaimed ← 39 | 40 → The Yacoubian Building. More generally, in the Arab world, both the ‘realist strategy’ and the ‘unfinished business of decolonization’ identified by Kubayanda have been shaping a dictatorial literature that, albeit lacking ‘a singular moment’9 similar to the Latin American one, continues to develop a critical discourse that investigates and reveals ‘the intrinsic fallibility of power’.10

At the crossroads of African and Arabic experiences of dictatorial literature, Bensalem Himmich’s Majnūn al-ḥukm (literally ‘Mad of Power’) stands as a unique and rather original piece. First published in Arabic in 1990, the novel received the ‘Al-Nakid’ award (Prize of the Arab Critique) and was chosen by the Author’s Union in Egypt as one of the best novels of the twentieth century. Himmich’s work gained international success following its translations into Spanish (El Loco del poder, 1996),11 French (Le Calife de l’épouvante, 1999),12 and English (The Theocrat, 2005).13 Himmich’s novel provides an original insight into the life and reign of Al-Hākim bi Amr Allāh (literally ‘the ruler by order of God’), the sixth Fatimid caliph who ruled Egypt from 996 to 1021. As suggested by the title, Al-Hākim’s reign was largely dominated by madness, excess and a paradoxical if not ambiguous exercise of power. In the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the entry on ← 40 | 41 → Al-Hākim admits that ‘it is difficult to form an exact idea of his personality, so strange and even inexplicable were many of the measures which he took, and so full of contradictions does his conduct seem’.14 While Al-Hākim’s political regime is defined as ‘a tyrannical and cruel despotism, with intervals of liberalism and humility’, his personality ‘remains an enigmatic one’ as ‘he seems to have been several persons in succession or even simultaneously’.15 Building on this complex and rather pathological portrait of the Fatimid ruler, Himmich’s work weaves together history and fiction to offer an original approach to dictatorial literature.

The novel is organized into four chapters introduced by a short preface, ‘Préambule de la fumée’ [Prelude to the Smoke], itself formed of two sections offering a brief third-person account of Al-Hākim followed by a fictional fragmentary text credited to the ruler. The first two chapters, as rightly noted by Roger Allen, ‘provide ample evidence of the problematic nature of Al-Hakim’s personality’.16 Chapter 1 offers an extensive record of Al-Hākim’s contradictory decrees and arbitrary interdictions, culminating in the way he used a giant slave named Massoud to sodomize any merchant found to be cheating people in the market. Chapter 2 investigates Al-Hākim’s councils where he respectively enjoyed sessions of violet oil treatments, had his delirious sayings recorded in writing, chaired court sessions asking the culprits to surprise him in order to gain forgiveness and discussed with his devotees the dissemination of his claims to divinity. The third chapter, which is surprisingly the longest of the novel, offers a detailed account of the revolt of Abū Rakwa, an Umayyad prince who won the support of North African tribes and tried to invade Cairo in an attempt to topple the Fatimid ruler. The fourth and final chapter describes Al-Hākim’s burning of the old Cairo to take revenge on the population ← 41 | 42 → that attacked him with slanderous statements, and ends describing how his sister, Sit al-Mulk, plotted his assassination, crushed all opposition and took control of power.

Drawing on Echevarría’s work and other theoretical material about historical fiction and aesthetics of tyranny, my aim is to assess the efficiency of Himmich’s novel in representing and reflecting on the question of dictatorship. After exploring the inherent limitations of historical fiction, I propose a critique of the topos of madness as a feature of the dictator figure. I then show how parody and language are used both to promote and resist the dictatorial discourse. Finally, I argue that Himmich’s work features an implicit call for self-constitution as a potential way out of dictatorship and despotism.

Towards a critique of the historical novel

One of the first questions raised by Himmich’s work in relation to the subject of dictatorship is that of the ability of a historical novel, informed by fictional and allegorical rewritings, to develop an efficient counter-discourse to despotism and authoritarianism. At first, the author’s recourse to history is not surprising given both his cultural background and overall literary production. Born in Meknès in 1949, Himmich completed a PhD in Philosophy at Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle (1983), worked as a Professor at Mohamed V University in Rabat and was the Minister of Culture of Morocco from 2009 to 2012. Writing in both Arabic and French, he produced a wide range of publications, including novels, poetry and philosophical essays. His non-fictional works are widely informed by philosophical and historical sources, more specifically the works and legacy of North African historian Ibn Khaldūn. In Himmich’s equally erudite novels, history and fiction are often blended to render the life of eminent figures such as Ibn Khaldūn himself in Al-‘Alaama (translated as The Polymath) or Sufi philosopher Ibn Sab’in in Hadha Al-Andalusi! (translated as A Muslim Suicide). In one of his articles, Himmich claims his attachment to ← 42 | 43 → what he calls his ‘triptyque favori (philosophie, histoire et littérature)’ (103) [favourite triptych (philosophy, history and literature)], but he admits his recent inclination for the novel ‘comme genre total exigeant recherche et réflexion et sollicitant le concours du souffle poétique, ainsi que des formes d’expression scénique et dramaturgique’ (104) [as a totalizing genre that demands research and reflection, and necessitates the support of poetic inspiration as well as scenic and theatrical art forms]. This conception of the novel as a space of erudition and poetic staging is at the core of Himmich’s fictional works. In Le Calife de l’épouvante, which is advertised as ‘a novel of historical fiction,’17 Himmich cannily subverts the subgenre of the historical novel to propose a personal reflection on the figure of the despot and the performances of tyranny. This process of subversion can be seen as a continuation of Himmich’s numerous articles on the novel and historical writing that reveal ‘not merely the breadth of his reading in literature and philosophy, but, more specifically, his familiarity with the interesting generic blending that is reflected in current discussions of historical fiction’.18 Among those discussions, English novelist A. S. Byatt, quoted by Roger Allen in his ‘translator’s introduction’, suggests many reasons to explain novelists’ recourse to history. These include ‘the fact that we have in some sense been forbidden to think about history’, the quest for ‘a new possibility of narrative energy’, the attempt ‘to find historical paradigms for contemporary situations’, ‘the aesthetic need to write coloured and metaphorical language’ and ‘the political desire to write histories of the marginalised, the forgotten, the unrecorded’.19 While these different reasons can be potentially used to support Himmich’s project, they might seem at odds with the ‘realist strategy’ and what Kubayanda terms the ‘unfinished business of decolonization’.

On the one hand, Le Calife de l’épouvante stands as an overt invitation both to reread the history of dictatorship in North Africa and the Arabic-Islamic world, and to re-appropriate the lessons of the past in order to tackle ← 43 | 44 → the persistent challenges of the present. On the other hand, the intrinsic complexity of Himmich’s novel and its dizzying blurring of the boundaries between history and fiction could hamper this process of rereading and recovery, leading unavoidably to those ‘complex problems of interpretation’ flagged by Kubayanda. An illustration of this paradox can be read in Wen-chin Ouyang’s hesitations regarding Himmich’s work in her Politics of Nostalgia in the Arabic Novel. Ouyang defines the novel as an ‘essay on tyranny’ and ‘a synthesis and assessment of the historical records’ but not ‘a straightforward modern historical narrative’.20 She also describes it as ‘a historiographical treatise on the nature of political authority’ and ‘a study of power’ but not ‘a fictionalised biography of the Fatimid ruler’.21 These successive attempts at defining Himmich’s work reveal the challenging intricacy of the text and the difficulties it entails in terms of understanding and appropriation. This problematic aspect becomes even more disturbing if one compares Himmich’s overt calls to promote history as ‘the best gateway to strengthening the mind for the purpose of comprehending and internalizing [present] reality’22 to the more circumspect warning he chose to add as a foreword to the second edition of the French translation: ‘Tout renvoi à l’Histoire (faits, récits) est strictement référencé et marqué en italique. Le reste, c’est-à-dire l’essentiel, est littérature et fiction’ (2010, p. 7) [All references to history (facts, narratives) are rigorously noted and highlighted in italics. Everything else, that which is essential, is literature and fiction]. While sounding like a belated clarification of the boundaries between history and fiction, Himmich’s foreword strengthens the fictional aspect of the work and pushes the historical dimension into the background, therefore relegating or at least minimizing any purported ‘realist strategy’ in the process of exploring the figure and the performances of dictatorship. Interestingly, Himmich associates this dominant fictional feature with the discourse of the despot himself: ‘Al Hakim, comme d’ailleurs presque tous les autres personnages du roman, n’ayant rien écrit, tout propos que ← 44 | 45 → je lui fais tenir n’est qu’allégation, supputation ou hypothèse, fruit d’un essai de descente dans la psyché perverse, ambivalente et complexe du despote’ (2010, p. 7) [Since Al Hakim, like most of the other characters in the novel, has not written any work, every statement I make his own is nothing but an allegation, a guess or a hypothesis, a result of an attempt at diving into the perverse, ambivalent and complex psyche of the despot]. Thus, any political reading of Himmich’s novel should bear in mind the very hypothetical reconstructions of history suggested and framed by the author. This is confirmed in Himmich’s text when Al-Hākim’s chronicler Moukhtar al-Mousabihi explains that his historical account, which works as a reflected image of the novel itself, is ‘élaboré par l’imagination et la poésie [et] se transformera lentement en un document vrai, qui sera reproduit par tous les historiens’ [created through imagination and poetry [and] it will be gradually turned into a genuine document to be reproduced by historians for all time] and will be read ‘comme d’autres documents qui commencent comme des fantaisies et deviennent Histoire’ (185) [like other documents that start as poetry but later become history]. In other words, history is a space for manipulation that seems as suspicious as fiction. In this respect, Le Calife de l’épouvante is nothing but a personal attempt at reading and reusing the complex material of history in the process of creating a fiction about despotism, tyranny and madness. In his introduction to a volume of essays exploring the politics of novels and novelists, Robert Boyers notes that ‘if we understand the significance of politics in a given novel as central, or marginal, that understanding has much to do with our sense that we have been invited to read that novel in a particular way’.23 The problem with Le Calife de l’épouvante is that the obscure and wavering linkage between history and fiction disrupt the invitation to read the novel in a particular way. Therefore, it forces the reader to be extremely cautious when dealing with interpretations and drawing inferences from the novel’s discourse about despotism and tyranny. ← 45 | 46 →

Madness as a problematic topos

The challenging if not disorienting nature of Himmich’s ‘dictatorial novel’ becomes even more significant with the treatment of the ruler Al-Hākim. As suggested by the Arabic title, the novel draws on the topos of madness to elaborate a complex and rather colourful portrait of the despot. Starting with the second section of the prelude, which takes the form of a first-person manifesto, Al-Hākim details his political vision and promotes the founding principles of his regime, based on excess, extremism, and conflict. After claiming ‘je suis enclin à l’extrême et au conflit des contraires’ (13) [I am inclined to the ultimate and the clash of opposites], he goes on to promote a warlike culture in which ‘la politique et le despotisme vont naturellement de pair’ (15) [tyranny is an intrinsic feature of politics]. Some fragments are directly addressed to the people – and by extension to the reader – turning the ruler’s madness into a series of terrifying and aggressive threats: ‘Craignez-moi et ne cherchez pas à me fuir. Je guette vos actes et vos intentions’ (20) [So fear me and do not ask to be rid of me. I am ever watchful of your deeds and intentions]. Throughout the novel, Al-Hākim’s madness is reworked to elaborate what Ouyang defines as ‘semiotics of tyranny’,24 reinforced by the rhetoric of his contradictory decrees and the inconsistency of his unpredictable mood swings.

In Le Calife de l’épouvante, this focus on madness as a fundamental feature of the despot’s portrait extends not only to the community of his devotees but also to the oppositional figures of the rebel Abū Rakwa and the ruler’s sister Sit al-Mulk. With both characters showing equally alarming symptoms of excess as they seize power and work to quash opposition, it becomes evident that Himmich ‘sees despotism as a formalism of power unpinned by a regime of signs that may be thought of only as madness’.25 As a result, Himmich’s novel not only discredits those potential ‘lines of escape’26 from tyranny but also shifts the reading of dictatorship from ← 46 | 47 → politics to psyche. One could argue that Himmich is simply following the historical accounts about Al-Hākim’s attested pathological personality or one might agree with Echevarría that ‘authority figures coalesce the historical and psychoanalytic realms’ (1985: 65). However, Himmich’s fictional and rhetorical reworking of madness in the novel remains problematic, to say the least. Unlike Wen-chin Ouyang who suggests that madness works as ‘a convenient trope around which Himmich structure[s] his inquiry into contemporary political despotism in the form of allegory’,27 it is my contention that the emphasized focus on madness weakens at once the allegorical, political, and ideological dimensions of the novel while hindering any concrete juxtaposition of history with contemporaneity. As Robert Boyers warns, ‘there is a danger in fictions resistant to ideas and ideologies’ since they ‘may unfold as spectacle or as reflections of historical patterns that have no specific weight and no possibility of yielding to any conceivable political initiative’.28 The initial originality of Himmich’s novel becomes politically ineffective as the text strives between the vertiginous combination of history and fiction and the overemphasizing of madness. One should note with Boyers that ‘the very resonance of terms like […] ‘the irrational’ will often disarm political thinking and make politics itself seem thin or trivial’.29 I would argue that the trope of madness in Le Calife de l’épouvante works first and foremost as a lever for Himmich’s imagination and creativity. Before being a cruel despot, Al-Hākim is a fascinating character who reminds us that ‘we like historical persons because they are unknowable, only partly available to imagination, and we find this occluded quality attractive’.30 Being ‘both subject and mechanism of creative writing,31 madness stands as a dominant topos, overemphasized to the point of neutralizing any literary strategy of resistance to dictatorship. Building on this idea, I would argue that the efficiency of Himmich’s novel ← 47 | 48 → in representing and reflecting on dictatorship needs to be sought rather in the literary virtuosity of the text, as evidenced by the use of irony and the metaphorical power of language and writing alike.

Writing between parody and symbol

Spanish poet and novelist Juan Goytisolo sees the section about the slave Massoud and his sodomizing punishments as ‘un concentré d’humour qu’on dirait sorti tout droit des pages des Mille et Une Nuits’ [a mass of humour that appears as stemming from the pages of the Arabian Nights], and notes that ‘l’ironie se distille finement’ [irony is finely distilled] in the account of Al-Hākim’s councils.32 As extensively shown by Echevarría in his reading of Carpentier’s El Recurso del método, Marquez’s El otoño del patriarca and Roa Bastos’ Yo el Supremo, parody is a constant feature of the dictator novel, often used to demystify the authority of the despot by undermining speech, rewriting foundation myths or recreating the radical power of the text. Throughout the novel, Himmich similarly uses parody to dismantle the logic of fear produced by the discourse and the power of the despot. As suggested by the subtitle of the second edition of the French translation, ‘au pays des peurs et du rire’ [in the country of fears and laughter], humour works as a counterweight to the symbols and performances of tyranny. The portraits of Al-Hākim’s devotees are particularly comical. Hamza Ibn Ali, said to be their elder, ‘se distinguait par un front large et proéminent, sur lequel il comptait souvent pour convaincre l’auditeur et confondre l’adversaire’ (88) [whose hallmark was a broad forehead, something he relied on to convince his listeners and defeat his adversaries]. Meanwhile, Hassan al-Farghani holds the nickname ‘Akhram Narine fendue’ [Akhram Split Nostril] in reference to ‘une blessure de son nez, par ailleurs aplati et ← 48 | 49 → énorme’ (89) [an enormous snub nose with a split nostril]. The physical defects of Al-Hākim’s devotees contrast with their pompous honorary titles (‘le doyen des adeptes’ [the Respondent’s Guide]; ‘l’Assistant du Guide’ [the Guide’s Assistant]) and thus work metaphorically to deconstruct the very body of tyranny and the instruments of its promotion.

Another example of parody is provided in the last chapter as the Egyptian people throw at the ruler ‘un torrent véhément de brochures et de billets satiriques, qui injuriaient sa lignée, ses titres de noblesse et ses actes’ (174) [an angry torrent of manifestos and pamphlets, all of which ridiculed Al-Hākim and cast aspersions on his origins, lineage, and deeds]. Himmich’s text emphasizes the effect of people’s caustic and satirical statements by noting that ‘ces écrits transformaient l’être entier d’Al-Hākim en une mémoire avilie, ballottée par la morbidité et la peur, attirée par un tourbillon magnétique vers l’abîme de la destruction’ (175) [these texts […] had a dire effect on Al-Hākim’s entire mental state; they triggered a sordid retrospective beset by the foulest of memories and a sense of sheer panic]. Interestingly, fear shifts from the population to the ruler as satire and irony seem to succeed where the rebel Abu-Rakwa and his military action have ultimately failed. A symbol of this destructive fear pervading the figure of the despot, one of the satirical letters is handed over to Al-Hākim by a veiled woman who appears as ‘un épouvantail bourré de morceaux de tissu et de papier’ (175) [a statue made out of strips of paper]. Thus, in Le Calife de l’épouvante, parody and irony seem to be embedded both in history and literature, opposing to the power of tyranny and dictatorship that of rhetoric, creativity, and humour.

Beyond this ‘résistance satirique’ (176) [resistance by sarcasm] that operates in both the historical and literary space, Himmich’s text can also be read as an enthusiastic celebration of language, writing and rhetoric against dictatorship. The numerous excerpts of historical sources and biographical accounts used to introduce the chapters or to support the narration work to unveil the very complexity of Al-Hākim’s personality and rule. These written fragments, which ‘apportent des matériaux que le récit de fiction prolonge ou contredit’ [introduce material that fictional narrative ← 49 | 50 → develops or refutes],33 offset the written materials produced by the despot, including not only his decrees but also his sayings transcribed by secretaries, historians, and devotees. To borrow Echevarría’s words, one can concede that in Himmich’s novel ‘it is not the voice, but writing, it is not the dictator-author, but the secretary-writer, who reigns’.34 The symbolic power of writing is reinforced by the originality of speech as characters are constantly crafting ingenious utterances to resist and undermine the power of tyranny. In the section about Al-Hākim’s court sessions, scientist Abou Ali Ibn al-Haytham and poet Ibn al-Sa’sa’ le Qarmate escape death by means of their rhetorical discourses which seduce the ruler. Moreover, the Prophet’s message reported by the Soufi sounds like an implicit call to champion the power of language and creative reasoning: ‘O homme de Dieu, fasses que ta parole ne soit pas du même ordre que la réalité des tyrans […] Laisse ton imagination miner la tyrannie par la patience et la réfutation créative’ (83) [Man of God, do not adjust your words to the world of tyrants. Let your imagination weaken tyranny through patience and creative denial].

The same use of rhetoric and linguistic creativity is a fundamental feature of the rebel Abu Rakwa. Throughout the lengthy third chapter, his eloquent speeches ‒ supported by lyrical, spiritual and metaphorical references ‒ help him to earn the confidence of the tribes and to organize the rebellion against the despot. Interestingly, he uses the power of metaphor to legitimize his actions as he claims in one of his speeches: ‘Nul prêche ni avertissement ne sert avec la tyrannie. Comment serait-ce possible alors que la peau du porc est inutile au tannage?’ [Neither advice nor preaching can prevail against tyranny. How could it when pig-skin is never to be tanned?] (129). The implicit comparison of the ruler to a pig is significant as it introduces the idea of illegitimacy by referring to an animal that symbolizes prohibition in Islam. Here again, the linguistic creativity of the rebel and his talent as an orator work to counterbalance Al-Hākim’s poetic utterances and the legitimizing rhetoric of his devotees. In this ← 50 | 51 → respect, Himmich’s work, like Latin American dictator novels, seeks to undermine or at least to resist ‘the metaphoric foundation of this rhetoric of power’, since ‘both power and rhetoric are generated together and cannot exist independently of each other’.35 It is as if the military struggle against tyranny and dictatorship has no choice but to perpetuate and extend to both spaces of language and writing.

Towards self-constitution

The problem with Himmich’s novel is that neither strategy proves to be sufficient in wiping out despotism and tyranny. In a letter addressed to Abu-Rakwa, Hussein Ibn Jawhar, the head of the Fatimid army, reveals that the Egyptian people are helpless and ‘même l’humour ne leur apporte que la vengeance du despote, suivie de malheurs et de souffrances’ (145) [even their jokes bring only vengeful attacks from the tyrant, and misery and suffering as a consequence]. Despite their immediate impact, parody, irony and humour all remain ineffective measures in the face of the overwhelming burden of tyranny. With regard to language and writing, the failure of Abu-Rakwa’s rebellion is particularly compelling. His spiritual and pacifying approach, which seems initially to resist Al-Hākim’s rhetoric of dictatorship, ends up leading to more blood and savagery as he chops off the head of Yanal le Turc, the commander of the ruler’s garrison, and stands powerless before Al-Hākim’s revenge. The rebel’s dramatic failure culminates in ‘les milliers de têtes coupées que l’on promenait dans les rues et sur les places’ [thousands of heads in every alley and square] and ‘les prisonniers qu’on décapitait à coups de sabre’ (165) [an endless succession of prisoners killed by the blows of a sword].

The advent of Sit al-Mulk, the ruler’s powerful sister who plans the assassination of her brother and rides to the rescue of the Egyptian ← 51 | 52 → population, does not seem to reverse the trend. Her exercise of power, based on manipulation and secret manoeuvring, not only perpetuates tyranny but also unveils the dilemma of any ruling dictator: ‘pour stopper l’hémorragie, il fallait répandre le sang’ (225) [in order to stem the haemorrhage, yet more blood had to be spilled]. In this, Himmich’s novel seems to suggest that there is no concrete way out of tyranny and dictatorship. Connecting Himmich’s novel with Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of power, Wen-chi Ouyang claims that the Moroccan author ‘may be interested in deterritorialisation elsewhere but not in Majnūn al-ḥukm. He is concerned rather with the type of despotism prevalent in the Arabic-Islamic world from which there are no detectable lines of escape’ (2013: 120). The final pages of the novel would encourage such a reading: the persistent shadow of Al-Hākim continues to haunt the streets of Cairo and even after his total disappearance, Egyptian people find themselves submitted to another form of excess, that of Al-Hākim’s successor Al-Dhaher and his immoderate passion for entertainment and debauchery. In other words, the history of dictatorship and tyranny ‘seems to repeat itself in a vicious cycle, as if the regime of signs that is madness has so tightened its noose that no lines of escape from it may be found’.36

However, as evidenced by the totally unexpected eruption of the Arab Spring in 2010, the contemporary reader of Himmich’s novel may argue that indecision and uncertainty are fundamental features of the anti-dictatorial movements and discourses in the Arab world. That would be a justified reading but I would go further and argue that there is still a hidden line of escape which Himmich’s novel alludes to, that of the return to the self and the elaboration of a new self-criticism based on introspection and solidarity, a form of ‘literary self-constitution’37 that precedes any political or social performance. In this way, Himmich’s novel appears to depart from the model of Latin American dictator novel that ‘deconstructs the assumptions about the power of self and its representation in fiction’.38 I would ← 52 | 53 → give three examples of this line of escape that hinges on the individual and collective reconstruction of the self.

In his final days, Al-Hākim reflects on his reign and admits having no problems save with ‘mon âme totale, qui m’interroge et me tourmente sans cesse’ (195) [my entire soul, which incessantly tortures me with questions]. His self-critical discourse is quite compelling as he finally concedes: ‘La vérité […] c’est que je me suis mêlé des contradictions et m’y suis abaissé, jusqu’à en être partie, et non plus maître’ (195) [The truth is that I have involved myself in contradictions, so I now see myself brought so low that I am a mere part of things and no longer master]. This belated avowal implicitly suggests that a good ruler is one who masters his very self and manages his own contradictions while seeking elevation and transcendence. This individual approach to the self as a potential way out of dictatorship takes a collective dimension in Abu-Rakwa’s final legacy left to Egyptian people before his death:

Si la violence des tyrans de votre temps vous submerge […] ne vous effondrez pas! […] Marchez sur les flancs de la terre, grandissez parmi les faibles et les affamés, car chez eux la tristesse fleurit avec les âmes et les corps qui grandissent en même temps que la colère […] faites de votre vie une arme consciente, toujours active.

[if you are submerged by the violence of tyranny in your time […] do not despair […] Go forth into the world and flourish among the weak and hungry. It is among such folk that sorrow grows in heart and body, and anger along with them […]. Keep yourselves forever alert and ready for action.] (169–70)

Abu-Rakwa’s call for the rise of self-consciousness and social solidarity hints at the necessity to promote the collective self as an oppositional tool to tyranny and despotism. Finally, the focus on the self needs also to be understood as a primary subject of writing. More than a historical fiction on dictatorship and madness, Himmich has delivered a novel about the self with its very intricate web of contradictions and inner secrets. Like Al-Hākim’s chronicler Moukhtar al-Mousabihi, the writer should be one who reworks his art to unveil the identity of the despot and lay bare his hidden thoughts. As the despot suggests to his chronicler, ‘Alors, écris l’histoire de ma mélancolie et de ma tristesse, tu comprendras ma tendance à innover […]. Fais donc la chronique de mon silence et de ma plongée profonde en lui, tu verras comment mes actes fermentent et mes œuvres ← 53 | 54 → naissent’ (186) [So, write the history of my melancholy and misery. You will come to understand my penchant for innovation […]. So record my silence then! You will see how my deeds ferment and my innovations fare in their labour pains]. A few pages later, Al-Hākim reveals his yearning for another life in which he could write his own memories, namely ‘tout ce que cet historien ne comprend ni ne perçoit, tous les cris latents, les déchirements et les vérités absents de ses gros livres’ (193) [all that historians do not see or appreciate, all the secret cries, rifts, and verities that are missing from their weighty tomes]. History is nothing without those little histories of the self that escape official manipulation and spring from the innermost territories of the subject. Writing or rewriting the self is a fundamental step towards the recapturing of global history and the creation of a potential way out of tyranny.

If one reason behind Himmich’s recourse to historical fiction is ‘an eagerness to escape the self as a subject matter’,39 it has to be acknowledged that the question of the individual and collective self ultimately comes back as possibly the last resort to resist the perpetuation of dictatorship and tyranny. Since rhetorical, linguistic and narrative strategies fail to tackle the persistent power of despotism, the subject needs to seek other alternatives, starting his quest with an examination of the self. A. S. Byatt suggests that writers who return to historical fiction are probably ‘attracted by the idea that perhaps we have no such thing as an organic, discoverable, single Self’.40 If this is true then the production of those writers, such as Himmich’s Le Calife de l’épouvante, adds another valuable contribution to the process of rebuilding the self and promoting the necessity of an inward reconstruction before tackling the hydras of dictatorship and despotism. ← 54 | 55 →


Aboul-Ela, Hosam, ‘Imagining more Autumns for North Africa’s Patriarchs: The Dictator Novel in Egypt’ in Words without borders, 2011. <> [1 August 2017].

Allen, Roger, ‘Translator’s introduction’ in Bensalem Himmich, The Theocrat (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005), vii–xv.

Arbós, Federico, ‘Postface’ in Bensalem Himmich, Le Calife de l’épouvante. Au pays des peurs et du rire (Casablanca – Paris: Editions La Croisée des chemins – Atlantica-Séguier, 2010), 245–51.

Bishop, Cécile, Postcolonial Criticism and Representations of African Dictatorship: The Aesthetics of Tyranny (London : MHRA/Legenda, 2014).

Byatt, A. S., On Histories and Stories. Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Boyers, Robert, The Dictator’s dictation. The Politics of novels and novelists (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

Canard, Marius, ‘al-Ḥākim Bi-Amr Allāh’, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edn, edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs <> [1 August 2016]

Echevarría, Roberto González, The Voice of the Masters. Writing and authority in modern Latin American Literature (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).

Goytisolo, Juan, ‘Préface’ in Bensalem Himmich, Le Calife de l’épouvante. Au pays des peurs et du rire (Casablanca – Paris: Editions La Croisée des chemins – Atlantica-Séguier, 2010), p. 11–14.

Himmich, Bensalem, Le Calife de l’épouvante (Paris: Le Serpent à plumes, 1999).

——, Le Calife de l’épouvante. Au pays des peurs et du rire (Casablanca – Paris: Editions La Croisée des chemins – Atlantica-Séguier, 2010).

——, The Theocrat (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005).

Kubayanda, Josaphat B., ‘Dictatorial Literature of Post-Independence Latin America and Africa’, in Research in African Literature, 28.4, Multiculturalism (Winter 1997): 38–53.

——, ‘Introduction: Dictatorship, Oppression, and New Realism’, in Research in African Literature, 21.2, Dictatorship and Oppression (Summer 1990): 5–11.

Linz, Juan J. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000). ← 55 | 56 →

Mbembe, Achille, De la Postcolonie (Paris: Karthala, 2000).

Ouyang, Wen-chi, Poetics of Nostalgia in the Arabic Novel. Nation-State, Modernity and Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

Spencer, Robert, ‘Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the African dictator novel’, The Journal of Commonwealth literature 47.2 (2012): 145–58.

1 Josaphat B. Kubayanda, ‘Introduction: Dictatorship, Oppression, and New Realism’, in Research in African Literature, 21.2, Dictatorship and Oppression (Summer 1990): 5–11 (6).

2 Kubayanda, ‘Introduction’, 8.

3 Roberto González Echevarría, The Voice of the Masters. Writing and authority in modern Latin American Literature (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), p. 6.

4 Juan J. Linz, Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), p. 62.

5 Echevarría, The Voice of the Masters, p. 65.

6 Cécile Bishop, Postcolonial Criticism and Representations of African Dictatorship: The Aesthetics of Tyranny (London : MHRA/Legenda, 2014), p. 84.

7 Achille Mbembe, De la Postcolonie (Paris: Karthala, 2000), p. 142.

8 Josaphat B. Kubayanda, ‘Dictatorial Literature of Post-Independence Latin America and Africa’, in Research in African Literature, 28.4, Multiculturalism (Winter 1997): 38–53 (38).

9 Hosam Aboul-Ela, ‘Imagining more Autumns for North Africa’s Patriarchs: The Dictator Novel in Egypt’ in Words without borders, 2011. <> [1 August 2017].

10 Spencer, Robert, ‘Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the African dictator novel’, The Journal of Commonwealth literature 47.2 (2012): 145–58 (146).

11 Translation by Federico Arbós, Libertarias Prodhufi Edición, Collection Alquibla, 1996. The volume includes a preface by Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo and a postface by the translator Federico Arbós.

12 Translation by Mohamed Saad Eddine El Yamani, Editions Le Serpent à Plumes, 1999. All the following French quotes are from this source. A second edition is published in 2010 by Moroccan and French publishers La Croisée des Chemins and Atlantica-Séguier.

13 Translation by Roger Allen, The American University in Cairo Press, 2005. The volume includes an introduction by the translator. All the following English quotes from Himmich’s novel are taken from this source. Elsewhere, translation is my own unless otherwise noted.

14 Marius Canard, ‘al-Ḥākim Bi-Amr Allāh’, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs <> 1 August 2016 [accessed 20 April 2018].

15 Canard, ‘‘al-Ḥākim Bi-Amr Allāh’.

16 Roger Allen, ‘Translator’s introduction’ in Bensalem Himmich, The Theocrat (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005), vii-xv (ix).

17 Allen, Translator’s Introduction’, viii.

18 Allen, Translator’s Introduction’, xii.

19 A. S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories. Selected Essays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), 11.

20 Wen-chi Ouyang, Poetics of Nostalgia in the Arabic Novel. Nation-State, Modernity and Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), p. 115.

21 Ouyang, p. 116.

22 Ouyang, p. 116.

23 Robert Boyers, The Dictator’s dictation. The Politics of novels and novelists (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 4.

24 Ouyang, p. 117.

25 Ouyang, p. 120.

26 Ouyang, p. 120.

27 Ouyang, p. 117.

28 Boyers, p. 6.

29 Boyers, p. 7.

30 A. S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories. Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 31.

31 Ouyang, p. 136.

32 Juan Goytisolo, ‘Préface’ in Bensalem Himmich, Le Calife de l’épouvante. Au pays des peurs et du rire (Casablanca – Paris: Editions La Croisée des chemins – Atlantica-Séguier, 2010), p. 11–14 (14).

33 Federico, Arbós, ‘Postface’ in Bensalem Himmich, Le Calife de l’épouvante. Au pays des peurs et du rire (Casablanca – Paris: Editions La Croisée des chemins – Atlantica-Séguier, 2010), 245–51 (249).

34 Echevarría, p. 76.

35 Echevarría, pp. 1–2.

36 Ouyang, 120.

37 Echevarría, 11.

38 Echevarría, 84.

39 Allen, xii.

40 Byatt, p. 31.