We had read in raw green by Touhfat Mouhtarean excellent novel and a promise: that of an author to follow. middle fire confirms all the good that we thought of the Comorian writer born in 1986 in Moroni.
Gaillard is a young servant in the city of Itsandra, in the Comoros. One day when she is going to fetch wood, she comes across Halima, a young noblewoman who is fleeing an arranged marriage. Two people, two social statuses, but a common destiny, even when they are subsequently separated for ten years. Between them, there is a dice with supernatural powers. More than an object, it is a link that allows them to stay connected beyond space-time and to challenge matter.
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Like the dice, the narration of the middle fire transcends genres, between the allegorical tale, the picaresque novel and magical realism. It summons the senses in a firework of flavors, colors, smells, tastes and opens us to other dimensions of existence. The link between these dimensions: love. The fabulous travels of Gaillard, his master, the Fundi, and Halima are a modern-day odyssey fueled by an overflowing imagination and sensitivity. A quest for meaning, too, at the crossroads of beliefs and knowledge.
Young Africa : middle fire is a novel that can be read and felt. Are you a writer of the senses?
Touhfat Mouhtare: I feel things intensely, and it took me a while to come to terms with it. I have no perspective on what I write, on what I feel. I live things very intensely. middle fire is the book of which I am most proud, because I sat down in front of my notebook and my computer, and decided to let what I was wearing do the talking. I didn’t even expect it to be released. I just said to myself that I wanted to let this story speak, these characters that haunted me. I allowed myself to feel. It was magic, it’s a book that did me a lot of good. Eventually, I found a like-minded editor, and I met a audience who also feels things.
Whether Gaillard, slave, or Halima, princess, women are the objects ofmale desire. Whatever one’s social condition, one cannot eescape to her status as a woman?
I didn’t want to intentionally write a novel on the condition of women, but I wanted to adopt the point of view of women, to faithfully transcribe the way in which they lived the circumstances, their life. Indeed, we realize by reading through their gaze that they are instrumentalized, but are not necessarily aware of it themselves”. They discover things naively.
Two personalities cohabited in me: the one who enslaved and the one who was enslaved
This idea that the woman could be an object or an instrument for the honor of the father and the mother is a subject of conversation that I had broached with my parents. They told me anecdotes which for them were normal events, about forced or arranged marriages, etc. However, they never used the terms “forced” or “arranged”: that was their reality. I realized that I was offended, anchored in my time, of an event dating from another time, of another vision of things, and that raised questions for me. Did these women feel considered objects? I wanted to stick to their gaze as much as possible, without judging.
Ancestral beliefs and the new religion »IIslam, sometimes confront each other. Was there an erasure ofpart of theComorian history, an Arab and Muslim reinterpretation?
I invented Queen Abé and her mythology because, unfortunately, I couldn’t find traces of ancient beliefs. On the other hand, the mechanisms of erasure, of replacement existed. A lot of elements of language make it possible to attest that we had to deny elements of the past to embrace a new ideology. After discussing it with my parents, I realized that two personalities cohabited in me: the one who enslaved and the one who was enslaved. If I attack one or the other, I attack myself.
My only way to be at peace is to build a myth that allows me to think about the pacification of all these mixtures
I wondered if there was a way to pacify these antagonisms and, having children, I wondered what story I was going to tell them. I no longer wanted to feed this anger, this hatred. I think we could have made these beliefs coexist and that it is not too late today.
Friends fall back on old African beliefs by opposing Westerners and other populations who have enslaved us. Only, as Sami Tchak rightly reminded me one day, for lack of knowing its history or having traces of it, a disturbing phenomenon occurs (and I am not immune to this pitfall): one opposes the ideology of the former colonizer of ideas , principles, ways of life and a culture which were themselves imported… by the colonizer himself. This creates double confusion!
I decided to respond to this dilemma by accepting this: I have settler blood, Arab blood, Indonesian blood, Bantu blood running through my veins. My only way to be at peace is to accept all that, then to build a myth that allows me to think about the pacification of all these contributions, all these mixtures.
Tamu, the madoptive era of Gaillard, and the Fundi, his mabeing Koranic, instill in him that he knowsbe the religion of Islam the protlight. Knowledge of the Quran was she a stratsurvival strategy for Comorians?
I think so. Consciously or not, for many elites in the Comoros and in most Islamic countries, it was a way to shine and it remains a way to gain social status. During the meals to which I was invited with my parents, I was marked by the oratorical jousts with Koranic verses. It was inevitable and preferably in Arabic. It is a way of existing in the eyes of society.
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It may happen that during one of these verbal contests in the mosques, a man who considers that he has been insulted removes his turban, his juba (long coat) and say: “We have clashed on the religious level, now confront me on the level of the tradition! » There were so many mixtures and displacements that we no longer know on which ground we to is holding. The latter is changing, moving, and we then create layers of status, social class, identity, to give ourselves composure. Religion, mastery of the Koran, its phrases, all this is part of the strategy of social survival.
And does this faith become sincereeD ?
Yes, to the point that in the Comoros as in other Islamic countries, we learn the Koran without knowing its meaning. What is beautiful and fascinating is to be able to live a cathartic experience by reading a text that we do not understand, but that we “feel”. It can lead to sincere faith, complete devotion to the cause.
I want to rehabilitate the inferior citizen
Several of your characters question the‘interprmasculine state of certain verses of the Koran. Do you want to restore the place of women in the Muslim religion?
It is above all a desire to restore the image of the deceitful, stupid and wicked servant conveyed by certain tales from my childhood. I want to rehabilitate the inferior citizen. Even today, there are villages of freed slaves who no longer say their names, whose chief can offer this to a visitor from the “master city”: “I have 30 children, do you want one for serve you at home? »
For him, it is an honor to propose this. These servants are perceived as idiots, devoid of any emotion, any ambition, any desire for freedom. I didn’t want to make them victims, but on the contrary to show that they know very well what they are going through. They analyze it, ironically, it’s just that they don’t know what to do to get out of it.
The Fundi, the maître de Gaillard, is an ambiguous character who transmits at both the religious messages that vehoist the fear of women and the knowledge for the liberer. Why ?
This is a paradox that I have observed in many men. They are torn between their status and their sensitivity, which they have discovered. If the Fundi allowed himself to say in public what he says to his servants, it would be social suicide. At the same time, he needs to pass on this knowledge and can’t help but do so because he loves his students. They are the sons he did not have: teaching them what he knows constitutes a form of revenge.
Daughter of a scholar of religion, I myself experienced this paradox. During sometimes heated debates, my father used to say to me: “For some people I know, I can’t go through that door, it’s up to you to go beyond. He took as an example the celestial ascension of the prophet Mohamed, accompanied by the angel Gabriel. They cross the heavens to the seventh heaven and once there, there is a portal and the angel Gabriel says: “I cannot go beyond. »
I quote the‘one of your characters: They are about to give at my message the mecarry meeand what‘a law, and that would kill himeeventually. » Ldoes dogma kill the religious message?
All religions, all spiritualities are similar on many points. They try to answer this question: how to live together with our differences, our vulnerability as a species? These truths escape us. Dogma is an attempt to grasp them, as if trying to grasp time or water. It is impossible because these truths are led to travel, to metamorphose. When we try to seize them and lock them up, we create something else from our fears, from our personal convictions drawn from our experience.
Your novel is also about travel at through time, the‘space, it leaves room for mysticism, at the reincarnation… Is it d‘Sufi inspiration?
There is Sufism, Hinduism and other sources of spiritual inspiration. The Koran is the initial tool of the characters, the only tool they possess; he opened the door to other things for them.
During my journey with Gaillard and Halima, I allowed myself to live other experiences that had nothing to do with those in which I was educated. I loved the adventure: taking them through space, time, through bodies, other materials, other forms of life. “To be almost everything”, said Arundhati Roy… For me, only life is truth. We can try to give it lots of definitions, to grasp it, but ultimately, what life offers us is itself.
middle fire of Touhfat Mouhtare, The noise of the world, 352 pages, 21 euros.
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Touhfat Mouhtare: “Women are instrumentalized, but are not necessarily aware of it” – Jeune Afrique
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