The Professional Stranger: On Abdelkebir Khatibi’s “Plural Maghreb”

By Khalid LyamlahyDecember 3, 2019

The Professional Stranger: On Abdelkebir Khatibi’s “Plural Maghreb”

Plural Maghreb by Abdelkebir Khatibi

LAST MARCH IN MOROCCO, a four-day international colloquium paid tribute to one of the most prominent yet insufficiently recognized figures of North African postcolonial literature and thought, Abdelkebir Khatibi (1938–2009). Khatibi was, among other things, a sociologist, philosopher, novelist, poet, and literary critic; he described himself as “a professional stranger” — i.e., a traveling intellectual whose thinking is constantly open to variation and difference, and whose writing, as he once put it, functions as “an exercise of cosmopolitan alterity.” The commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Khatibi’s death coincided with the publication of an English translation of Maghreb pluriel, a seminal collection of essays, originally published in 1983, that is well known and regularly cited by scholars of North African culture and politics.

This long-awaited translation confirms the growing interest in Khatibi’s works, especially over the past four years in the United States and the United Kingdom. The engagement with Khatibi’s legacy, led by academics, critics, and translators, finds its origins in a broader interest in the experience of the “Souffles generation” — named for Souffles Anfas, a journal of culture and politics founded in 1966 by a group of Moroccan poets and artists. Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio’s 2015 volume Souffles Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics brought to English-speaking audiences the creative and subversive content of the journal. An early platform for postcolonial thought and transnational politics, Souffles Anfas published experimental writing and abstract art, serving, up until the arrest of its main contributors in 1972, as a tribune for the Moroccan left during the “Years of Lead,” a period marked by the brutal suppression of the state’s political opponents.

In one of his first poems published in the journal, Khatibi captures this fraught atmosphere through an oblique reference to the bloody repression of student protests in Casablanca in March 1965:

The street is invincible,
all revolt is an avalanche of rocks
Standing, in the violent street
man is the first to speak.

Alongside fellow poets Abdellatif Laâbi, Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, and Mostafa Nissabouri, Khatibi embodied the desire of a whole generation of Moroccan creators to reinvent a North African modernism by resisting simultaneously the burden of local traditions and the influence of Western practices. Although he later distanced himself from the radically political turn Souffles Anfas took at the end of the 1960s, Khatibi still played a major role in the intellectual effervescence of the period. In one of his early articles for the journal, he writes that “our culture is still primarily traditionalist or imitative. Our challenge lies in knowing how to debunk this tradition, how to demystify it, how to find new ways to appropriately express our reality and embody our deepest desires.” Khatibi’s position as a “professional stranger” stems from this attempt to challenge traditional discourse and bring about a modern, decentered, and transdisciplinary approach to social and cultural issues.

In Plural Maghreb, Khatibi draws on Derridean deconstruction to develop a model of critical thinking in the North African context. As suggested by the subtitle of the English translation, the volume is a collection of essays on various postcolonial questions related to sociology, language, sexuality, and art. The opening essay in the volume, an early version of which was published in a special issue of Les Temps modernes dedicated to the Maghreb, serves as a theoretical framework for the rest. Khatibi starts by quoting Frantz Fanon’s exhortation to turn the page on European dependence, arguing that decolonization requires a “double critique” of both Western legacies and non-Western patriarchal and theological paradigms.

The second pivotal concept introduced here, and developed by Khatibi throughout the volume, is that of an alternative mode of thinking — an “other thought” — that is open to plurality, alterity, and difference. Khatibi encourages a transgressive and dynamic reconstruction of postcolonial identity beyond self-sufficiency and dogmatism, as exemplified by this compelling redefinition: “I call ‘Third World’ this tremendous energy of surviving in transformation, this plural thought of survival whose duty is to live in its extraordinary freedom.” While underscoring the deficiencies of traditionalism, historicism, and rationalism, Khatibi advocates a concept of the Maghreb as a site of productive discontinuity and dissymmetry, which he develops in the following essays in relation to scientific and cultural production.


Khatibi’s plural and often polemical mode of thinking owes much to his background. Born in the coastal city of El Jadida, also the hometown of his literary comrade Driss Chraïbi, Khatibi attended schools in Marrakech and Casablanca, writing his first poems at the age of 12. In 1958, he moved to Paris to study sociology at the Sorbonne, where he sat in the classes of eminent intellectuals such as Raymond Aron, Henri Lefebvre, and Georges Gurvitch. During the same period, his first travels, especially to northern Europe, deeply influenced his transdisciplinary thought, initiating the transnational perspective he would later develop in his works.

In 1965, Khatibi completed a doctoral thesis in sociology, which he published three years later as Le Roman Maghrébin (The North African Novel), one of the earliest studies of Maghrebi literature in relation to pivotal questions of acculturation, political commitment, exile, and bilingualism. Khatibi’s most famous book, La Mémoire tatouée (Tattooed Memory), published in 1971 and translated into English in 2016, is an unconventional autobiography that develops, according to Francophone studies scholar Debra Kelly, “a multi-layered, multi-voiced textual strategy in order to work through the process of decolonising the self,” thus offering “the potential for a reconciliation of the multiple elements of the writer’s identity.”

Upon his return to Morocco, Khatibi became director of the Institute of Sociology, where he worked alongside Paul Pascon, a renowned critic of French colonialism, to lay the foundations for a new scientific discipline and to train a fresh generation of Moroccan scholars. In line with this project, the second essay in Plural Maghreb paves the way for a decolonized sociology by calling for the “deconstruction of logocentrism and ethnocentrism” and the development of a self-critical discourse that takes into consideration relationality and multilingualism in Arab societies. The essay also provides a thoughtful discussion of the hierarchical orders of precolonial Maghrebi society. Khatibi conducts a critical dialogue with Marxism, functionalist anthropology, and the foundational work of Ibn Khaldun, laying bare their respective limitations and emphasizing the necessity of rethinking the dynamism and instability of North African social structures.

In the 1970s, Khatibi’s sociological investigations led him to semiology, and both disciplines inform his most original work of the period, La Blessure du Nom propre (The Wound of the Proper Name), a transdisciplinary study of tattoos, calligraphy, and popular proverbs, published in 1974, that is aimed (as he would later explain) to restore “the theoretical dignity” of popular culture. This iconoclastic volume, enriched by Khatibi’s readings of Roland Barthes (who sat on his thesis committee), inaugurated a series of collaborative publications on Moroccan and Islamic art, including The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy (1994; English translation 1996), with Mohamed Sijelmassi, and From Sign to Image: The Moroccan Carpet (1996; English translation 1998), with Ali Amahan.

For Khatibi, the professional stranger is also an intellectual who offers provocative reflections, opening research into what he identifies in Plural Maghreb as “those silent questions, repressed by the theological order and by the order of scientism.” In this respect, the fourth essay in the volume challenges “the prudential silence of Maghrebi (and Arab) researchers” regarding sexuality. Khatibi implements his “other thought” by “putting in parentheses the entire immense archive of glosses and exegeses about and on the basis of the Quran.” Writing about Islam, according to Khatibi, demands a translating of its principles, working on both a linguistic and a metaphysical level. The essay consequently investigates questions of naming, seduction, and procreation in the Adamic, the Abrahamic, and the Joseph narratives, respectively. Khatibi’s main argument is that sexuality needs to be read within the full context of Islamic society­, “a system of absolute circularity” that works according to specific and immutable laws of exchange, permutation, and justice.


Khatibi’s intellectual curiosity and eclectic knowledge, including wide-ranging readings in philosophy, religion, and literature, allowed him to move impressively from one discipline to another while maintaining the same innovative mode of dialectical thinking. In Plural Maghreb, this method is manifest not only in his thought-provoking engagement with Derrida, Foucault, and Blanchot, among others, but also in his stylistic choices, such as the use of exergues, interludes, and figures to organize or support his arguments, the inclusion of a fictional dialogue, and the close reading of surnames. In a preface to his recent translation of Khatibi’s 1976 poetry collection, Le Lutteur de classe à la manière taoïste (Class-Warrior — Taoist Style), Matt Reeck calls him “an ontological writer” in the sense that “he played with limits — limits of genre, expression, and identity — as typically inscribed in literary production.” This playful yet sophisticated relationship with cultural production is reflected in Khatibi’s approach to language and, more significantly, in his interest in bilingualism as a hybrid form that opens the self to the other, fostering the potential for mutual enrichment.

In 1981, Khatibi organized a conference in Rabat to discuss the question of bilingualism with local and international thinkers from different linguistic backgrounds, including Tzvetan Todorov, François Cheng, and Abdelfattah Kilito. Typical of his transdisciplinary approach, Khatibi later revisited the concept of bilingualism in Amour bilingue (1983), a novel that has been translated by Richard Howard as Love in Two Languages (1990), in which he rejects the linguistic dualism of Arabic and French, bringing into question what literary scholar Réda Bensmaïa has called “the false transparency or obviousness of the bilingual problem.” Love in Two Languages opens a space of exchange and interaction that plays with and beyond linguistic boundaries. As postcolonial theorist Jane Hiddleston, in her 2009 book Understanding Postcolonialism, puts it: “Bilingualism is a form of separation, but the form also engenders a plural, relational form of writing for Khatibi, in which languages jostle against one another and provocatively permeate one another with fragments of alterity.”

The fifth essay in Plural Maghreb develops this idea through an interesting case study. In the Maghreb, Khatibi argues, “a constant translation and a conversation en abyme” takes place between the “mother” tongue and the “foreign” language, a process he analyzes at work in Talismano, a 1979 novel (English translation 2011) by Francophone Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb. Building on a phonetic transformation of the author’s name, Khatibi argues that the bilingual text “tracks the exile of the name and its transformation,” seeking to overcome its inner contradictions by engaging with other languages and reinventing the use of Arabic dialect. As a result, the Francophone Maghrebi writer is “caught in a chiasmus between alienation and inalienation,” as he constantly grapples with the return of Arabic and the rewriting of French in his text.

This attention to alterity and difference was another distinctive feature of Khatibi’s ethics as a “professional stranger.” To cite one example, his 1983 collection of essays Figures de l’étranger dans la littérature française (Figures of the Stranger in French Literature) is an insightful reflection on the potentialities and limitations of writing the other in selected works by French authors, such as Roland Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Claude Ollier, and Victor Segalen, from whom Khatibi borrows the concept of the “exote” — the true traveler who knows how to experience diversity and resist assimilation.


Khatibi’s interactive and conversational approach led him to build a number of intellectual friendships and take part in a series of collaborative works, including two noteworthy volumes of correspondence with the psychoanalysts Jacques Hassoun and Rita El Khayat. In their preface to the English translation of the latter volume, Safoi Babana-Hampton, Valérie K. Orlando, and Mary Vogl note that “Khatibi and El Khayat chose the highly symbolic form of the open letter to explore through dialogue (as a form of individual and civic ethics) the meanings of the notions of ‘hospitality’ and modern forms of ‘fellowship’ and ‘courtship’.” These notions are related to “aimance’” (often translated as “lovence”), another pivotal concept in Khatibi’s ethics, which is inscribed in both Arabic and Western traditions of courtly love. Khatibi revives and mobilizes aimance in his 1986 poetry collection Dédicace à l’année qui vient (Dedication to the Coming Year) and, later, in his 1995 study Le Livre de l’aimance (The Book of Aimance), where he defines the concept as the “loving language that generates a more active affinity between beings and gives substance to their mutual affection and paradoxes.” In other words, it is a form of ethical philosophy based on relationality, openness, dialogue, and resistance to appropriation.

Khatibi’s poetic and creative work around the concept of aimance is at the core of his decisive friendship and intellectual dialogue with Jacques Derrida. The two thinkers first met in Paris in the mid-1970s and afterward regularly exchanged and read their respective publications. In The Politics of Friendship (1994; English translation 2005), Derrida refers to Khatibi as “a friend, a poet-thinker I admire” and builds upon his use of aimance to explore the history of thinking about friendship as a form of both interpersonal and political relation. Derrida engages more deeply with the work of his Moroccan friend in his 1996 book Monolingualism of the Other, or, the Prosthesis of Origin, which opens with two epigraphs borrowed from Khatibi and Martinican thinker Édouard Glissant as a way to introduce Derrida’s discussion of his relationship to the French language. Quoting Khatibi’s call “to define what a mother tongue is in its active division, and what is transplanted between this language and the one called foreign,” Derrida evokes his experience as a member of the community of Algerian Jews who were successively granted and stripped of French citizenship. Derrida’s reflections on his Franco-Maghrebian identity are conducted in dialogue with Khatibi’s experience as a bilingual subject in (post-)colonial Maghreb, culminating in this famously paradoxical sentence: “I only have one language; it is not mine.”

Unlike Khatibi, who writes in French while having a mother tongue, Derrida has only one “native” language, which is the result of a personal experience marked by dispossession and precariousness. Khatibi’s work provides not only a mirror in which Derrida reconsiders his specific experience but also a contrasting lens through which he develops his conceptual reflections on language and alienation, as experienced on a universal level.


Derrida’s recognition of Khatibi’s intellectual contributions is far from being shared by all intellectuals and scholars. Edward Said, for instance, surprisingly dismissed Khatibi as a “peripheral” thinker who “doesn’t have the force or the presence or the place or the location inside French culture that Sartre or Foucault do or had.” This dismissive remark seems more a comment on Khatibi’s limited resonance in French intellectual circles, however, than an actual evaluation of his thought, especially since Khatibi shares Said’s interest in Orientalist discourses. The third essay in Plural Maghreb, for instance, is a broad critical review of Jacques Berque’s 1978 book Cultural Expression in Arab Society Today, which Khatibi criticizes for its “paternalistic and stilted rhetoric” and its synthetic and homogeneous depictions of Arabs. Through this critique, Khatibi targets Orientalism’s ethnocentric inability to take on board “a thought of difference,” as suggested by Berque’s striking dismissal of both the mystical strain in Islam and the bilingualism of Arab societies.

Other Western thinkers have criticized Khatibi’s low level of engagement with concrete politics and gender issues. The postcolonial feminist theorist Winifred Woodhull, for example, argues that his “other” poetics, by promoting hybrid identities and polymorphous bodies, at once disregards the specificities of women’s experience and points to “an ‘other’ politics divorced from social institutions and from material relations of domination.” Another recurring critique of Khatibi’s production flags the complexity of his work, the dense and convoluted writing that often requires a substantial effort from readers and translators (as suggested by the experience of P. Burcu Yalim, who seems at times to struggle with the highly challenging and multifaceted language of Plural Maghreb). Despite these criticisms, Khatibi’s active and multidimensional thought remains an invaluable addition to the field of North African studies and a relevant resource for understanding the cultural and political challenges in the region and beyond.

In a vibrant tribute republished in 2008 as a preface to the third volume of Khatibi’s complete works, Barthes writes that “Khatibi teaches me something new, shakes up what I know.” Specifically, his work decenters Western subjectivity and epistemology by opening scholarship to non-Western, popular, and often dismissed cultural signs. One way that Khatibi does this is by turning to art as a space for creative thinking and intellectual engagement. The final essay in Plural Maghreb, for instance, offers an original reading of the work of Moroccan painter Ahmed Cherkaoui in relation to the question of identity. Cherkaoui’s painting is “monogrammatic” in the sense that “it makes visible the drawing, the interlacing of its identity” through a creative dialogue with Moroccan popular culture, including tattoos and tapestry. Khatibi argues that Cherkaoui’s painting becomes, in the manner of Paul Klee, a “calligraphy of roots” and a “writing of the sign.” With this in mind, Khatibi reflects on the Islamic tradition of the rosace mosaic and the vertigo it causes; the interaction of art and religion, he argues, creates a variety of patterns between symmetry and variation. As a result, Islamic art reinvents the idea of paradise through “a procession of metaphors,” as in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus or a 16th-century miniature of the Prophet riding the Buraq.


In a response to Said’s dismissal of the Moroccan thinker, postcolonial literary scholar Françoise Lionnet claims that, “if Khatibi remains a ‘peripheral’ figure in France and especially in the English-speaking world today, it is primarily as a result of non-translation.” This situation has significantly improved with the publication of Plural Maghreb, which will undoubtedly further the recognition of Khatibi as a leading global intellectual and contribute to the diffusion of and dialogue with his thought worldwide.

One can think of Khatibi’s legacy as a traveling mosaic that offers not only a stunning assemblage of literary and intellectual materials but also an implicit invitation to extend the horizon of thought beyond self and community. To read Khatibi is to navigate through his works with and as a professional stranger, by always opening the self, beyond generic boundaries and restrictive categories, to the empowering experience of dialogic and plural thinking.


Khalid Lyamlahy teaches Francophone North African literature at the University of Chicago. He is co-editing a volume about Abdelkebir Khatibi and working on a new project that explores questions of identity and alterity in post-2011 Maghrebi fiction.

LARB Contributor

Khalid Lyamlahy holds a PhD from the University of Oxford and teaches Francophone North African literature at the University of Chicago. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Research in African Literature, The Journal of North African Studies, and the Irish Journal of French Studies. He is now co-editing a volume about Moroccan writer Abdelkébir Khatibi and working on a new project that explores questions of identity and alterity in post-2011 Maghrebi fiction. He is also the author of a novel, Un Roman Étranger, published in 2017 by Présence Africaine Editions in Paris.


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