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The reception of St. Augustine in modern Maghrebian novels

Anja Bettenworth

University of Cologne

This paper presents the first results of an ongoing research project on the reception of Saint Augustine in the modern Maghreb, led jointly by a Classicist and a colleague from French studies. We consider this as a case study which can be transferred to the broader reception of antiquity in the Maghreb.

For classicists, dealing with fragments of a past era whose memory has come down to us in bits and pieces is a core activity. The fragmentary is also an integral part of ancient literature itself. Gaps e.g. in the Homeric tradition are filled by subsequent authors who consider themselves either part or heirs of Greek culture. Even when they criticize Homer, they assume that his works are part of their heritage and that of their readers. In the western tradition, fragments open up new possibilities.

The modern Maghrebian perception of antiquity is radically different. Maghrebian novelists often dwell on the notion of the fragmentary, e.g. when they emphasize that modern North Africans live surrounded by scattered archeological evidence for their region’s ancient heritage. But in Maghrebian novels, a connection to antiquity is usually not achieved by piecing together these fragments. Instead, the narrators claim a subconscious, almost organic connection with the past: For authors like Kebir Ammi and Abdelaziz Ferrah, African-born Augustine is to be "dreamt" by his descendants, his characteristics are mirrored by the perceived characteristics of modern-day Berbers, and the landscape of the Maghreb makes the modern wanderer "see" through the ages and discover an unbroken link between himself and the church father. On this basis, Berber (Amazigh) identity is then defined as metamorphotic, based on the capacity to keep up a conversation with the past and to absorb new influences. This capacity is not necessarily dependent on the fragments of texts and material objects which are often the center of western memory-studies. The oxymoronic concept of variability as the invariable core of Berber identity also differs from nationalistic approaches to Augustine in French colonial circles (e.g. Louis Bertrand's 1913 book Saint Augustin) and in the post-colonial Algeria of president Bouteflika. At the same time, it rejects the dualistic worldview of radical Islam. Muslim-born Maghrebian authors thus offer a fresh, inclusive view on antiquity which negotiates a regional approach with concepts of "omni-localism" (Greenwood). This paper deals with new ways of exploring their achievements.

Session/Panel Title

Theorizing Africana Receptions

Session/Paper Number

17.1

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