In 1984, Atiq Rahimi, then a young student at the University of Kabul, fled Soviet Afghanistan. He has since become what he calls a “cultural refugee” in France, naturalized, and a director and novelist filling the blank page in search of his identity. In 2008, he was awarded the Goncourt Prize for Syngué Sabour, written in French and adapted for the cinema. Today, his novel La Ballade du Calame is a reflection on exile through the lens of calligraphy. A piercing eye and vibrant mind, he quotes Barthes or Sartre abundantly – appropriately so – and delivers his vision of Paris. Paris as the land of writers and film directors, and also Paris as a welcoming land for migrants.
Literature abounds with writings on Paris – for example Hugo, Zola, Modiano, etc. As a literary man and future writer, did you have a “fantasy Paris” in mind?
Reading Les Misérables shaped my concept of Paris. I was 15 and lived in a very political family. My father had a liking for Hugo – his convictions and his political struggles. And so did my communist brother. For me, Paris embodied rebellion, the fighting spirit. Hugo’s romantic style, with his 40- or 50-page long descriptions of the sewers, fascinated me! I had never been to France before leaving Afghanistan. And yet, thanks to literature, when I finally arrived in Paris on the 31st of March 1985, I felt like I knew the city; I even felt that I had already lived here before. It was in my imagination, I could actually see a whole city and a whole underground life peopled with revolutionaries and political opponents…
The cinema also conveys a mythology of Paris…
Yes, and I saw many films at the Alliance Française, notably those of the Nouvelle Vague – quite different from Hugo. It was another Paris, rather romantic. I remember being quite impressed by Michel Deville’s La Femme en Bleu [The Woman in Blue]. He shot Paris in the most extraordinary way. I also think of Claude Sautet…
You’ve been here for 30 years now, but you’ve never written about Paris. How come?
The first novel that I was never able to finish was set in Paris. It tells of the three-month night stroll of an Afghan through Paris going from one bar to the next in search of a girl he has lost track of. It was inspired by my life, my arrival in France and my own strolls. The title was Les Mots de Minuits à Paris Midnights words in Paris. I reconsidered that idea for a movie that was supposed to be shot last January. But for budget reasons, and primarily because of the attacks, it did not happen. The movie was supposed to be shot on Boulevard Richard- Lenoir near République and along the Saint-Martin Canal. It was difficult, so we dropped the project. Maybe someday…
Paris at the time of your arrival was quite different from the Paris today in terms of welcoming refugees…
Yes! In the 1980s we were in the context of the Cold War, and refugees, especially Afghans, were treated like princes. We were welcomed at the Puteaux refugee centre, and then were sent to another city or village for eight months to recover and integrate, learn the language and wait for our official documents. There were no tents like those you see today all over Paris.
Did you perceive the shift?
I noticed the change in 2005–2006 after the invasion of Iraq that resulted in a massive arrival of refugees fromAfghanistan and other neighbouring countries.
Would you choose to stay in Paris today?
Yes [smile]. I like Paris for all the reasons mentioned earlier, and for the human rights, the intellectual life… Of course, some of the aspects of French politics bother me, like the rise of the Front National. But Paris has preserved her soul, and France remains the Land of Human Rights. I don’t agree with the image that is sketched today of the French as being racist, xenophobe, anti-Semitic… no!
Perhaps “your Paris” and your intellectual circles are somewhat protected from the tensions relating to migration issues…
We are experiencing a key moment and Paris remains affected and infected by this. Let me tell you: the real problem is that there is no intellectual movement to convey new ideologies, new ways to look at things, at society. We lost our thinkers, our intellectual guides such as Sartre, Foucault… Today, faith has taken over every other ideology.
Some people feel, and condemn, an obsessive treat- ment of Islam by the French media. Would you agree?
No, I think it all comes from Islam itself: Muslims are obsessed with their scriptures. Furthermore, more so than the French, the writers of Muslim origin are actually the ones pointing their fingers at Islam and questioning it: Salman Rushdie for one, Boualem Sansal, myself… Some Muslims say that we are being tricked into writing what we are told to. You’d be surprised about the stuff I read about myself on the internet!
On the 3rd of September, Aylan, the child found dead on a Turkish beach, made the world’s headlines. Worldwide, except in France. As a refugee, a French citizen and a visual mind, do you feel that this might have been a mistake?
They have missed an occasion to make people feel guilty, that’s all! Barthes said that what bothered him most with beggary, beyond the misery, was the stereotyped aspect of beggars and the fact that they made people feel guilty. I did not understand the hysteric reaction of a few French people who stirred up a scandal because the photograph was not in the media. Rather than reaching to the core of things, of what really matters, it just makes us feel guilty: there is misery behind all this, and it’s time to act.
Why don’t the Gulf countries take their share of the responsibility? Saudi Arabia, for example, has the capacity to welcome two million, even three million pilgrims every year, so why not 300,000 refugees? But because of their alliance with the United States, and because the country is so rich, no one dares bring it up.
A few years ago, you said that it was not your work that was political, but its reception. However, looking at your personal story, the subjects of your books and current events, wouldn’t you de facto consider yourself committed?
There is a magnificent quote from Pascal taken up by Camus that says: “We are all in this together.” So it’s much more than just a matter of commitment. From the moment you publish something, you’re drawn into the story, because you’re using a material that belongs to society, to humankind: language. As for me personally, raised in a political family, a refugee in France, I will be called upon whatever I do. But I am telling about a very personal exile. The stories that other refugees have to tell are far more tragic than mine. I was treated like a prince when I landed here, so no one cares about my own little personal anecdotes.
Can it be that because he is uprooted, the exiled individual knows himself better than those who stayed behind?
Of course; it’s like being reborn. But the most important thing is: what does exile bring? We see only tragedy and political problems, but among the thousands of exiled individuals, how many of them will become artists? If young people were given the means, something would ultimately come out of it someday.
How does one decide to leave behind one’s country? Is it a planned project, or a matter of survival?
When confronted with a disaster, a shift, there are three choices: adapt to the novel environment, fight against it, or flee. In the beginning, you try to resist. Then comes a time when the individual can no longer adapt or even fight against the existing distortion created between him and society, between him and his country’s politics. So he is doomed to exile. It is a thoughtful decision, a will. But –and this is what I tried to tell in my last book– humankind is founded on exile: whether from a religious or a mythological perspective, with Adam and Eve; or from the perspective of birth – an exile from the matrix; or even most certainly, from the biological fundamentals of life on earth: cells mutate; they come out of the water to seek refuge on earth.
Do you feel any resentment for having left your country? Guilt?
As I said earlier, no one forced me to leave my country. As with guilt, whatever you do… There is a magnificent quote from Oedipus by Sophocles: “Do not look at me as if I were a criminal, I am only a foreigner.” I am currently writing about Oedipus as an emblematic figure of exile. He is doomed to suffer in the country that welcomed him, and his country becomes a prison. He is considered a criminal, thus guilty. And then he recalls all the people he has left behind, and feels guilt. A man in exile always feels guilty. And we are back to the founding myth of Adam and Eve.
You write about your native land, but you also photo- graphed it. Is it easier to take some distance behind a lens?
No. The novel is better suited to creating that distance, because it’s not immediate like photography. Le Retour Imaginaire [The Imaginary Return] came from setting off to photograph my hometown with a digital camera. But I was not getting anywhere; the immediacy – “tac-tac-tac” [he mimics shooting] – was of no interest to me; after all, I’m not a photographer. So I dropped it. And then I found this old, really ancient tripod camera. The black and white, the anachronism in these photos… they seemed to come from another century… And this allowed me to reveal a few things.
Since 2008, you only write in French. What does it mean – symbolically – to abandon one’s maternal language? Is it an act of defiance?
I wanted to touch base with the innocence of writing. Writing in a different language is like writing for the first time. And it’s impossible to feel that freedom with a maternal language that imposes its limits and taboos. It’s in the term itself: maternal language. You don’t mess with you mother!
You are a father. Is the issue of transmission considered differently from a refugee’s point of view?
Until my daughter was born in 1996, I was very distant from Afghanistan. Considering all the things that my family had gone through with my father’s imprisonment and my brother’s passing, I was sort of traumatized. I saw very few Afghans, and this is still the case, actually. And looking at my daughter [he spreads his arms, as if holding a tiny child], I thought to myself: “One of these days, I’ll be held to account!” So it seemed necessary to return to the homeland. But my children are French. My son, a football fan, supports Paris Saint-Germain. It’s like his family. See, still Paris!