Title: These Girls
Director: Tahani Rached
Country: Egypt, Cairo
These Girls by Egyptian Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached is an intimate portrait of the lives of several street-involved girls in Cairo who range in age from 10 to 22. The film opens with a shot of a teenage girl in jeans and a t-shirt riding a horse in the middle of day time downtown Cairo traffic. The girl riding the horse is named Fatma, but her nickname is Tata. Tata is really the star of this film. She is a vibrant, obnoxious bad-ass who makes it clear that she will fight with whoever gets in her way or threatens her friends. She doesn’t care if it’s police or a father dead-set on committing an honour-killing. All the girls in Rached’s film are tough and sometimes downright brazen in their assertions that they can defend themselves against violence with violence. And violence is a daily reality of their lives on the streets. The girls face violence from each other, their parents, the police, and particuarly men who want to rape them. The girls live with the constant threat of being kipnapped and gang raped and share stories of girls being taken and held captive for days by men who have dragged them off the street.
A lot of the violence these girls face is similar to what street-involved youth around the world, and even here in Canada face. A significant difference is that if these girls become pregnant out of wedlock, they face the possibility that a member of their family might hunt them down and kill them in order to maintain the family’s honour. Abeer, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is because she was gang raped, ends up having to hide from her father, who Tata attacks with a razor to protect her friend. Abeer’s baby is born without a birth certificate because Abeer can’t produce a marriage contract indicating who the father is.
Abeer’s situation is one of the many problems the girls face that Abla Hind, a middle-class woman who, desipite not being a social worker (she states she only has a dipolma in tourism), is in many ways an important support for the girls and someone they turn to for advise when they are in trouble. Hind’s relationship with the girls is quite fascinating and she admits that she feels she needs them more than they need her. The girls are clearly struggling with poverty, lack of family support, and violence much of which they try to cope with by smoking joints, sniffing glue, and popping pills. But it is clear that they love and support one another and so have become a make-shift family. Although the film is heartbreaking, the girls’ fiereness and resilience is inspirational.
However, as with many documentaries of this type, I had the sense of being a voyeur and wondering if, even unintentionally, if documentaries like this are not unavoidably exploitational unless they are used to concretely address the social problems they depict. As Jennie Jediny writes in her review of the film:
These Girls is a nauseating experience, and understandably so — these women appear not only powerless, but destined for an inevitably short and miserable life. They live in poverty, have little chance of escaping the street and give birth to children who are recognized by neither the state nor their families. Rached doesn’t avoid this reality — by the end of the film, many of the girls have admitted they are relentlessly sad and depressed, and that their laughter comes from a very hollow place — but she backtracks too often to a false sense of hope. Perhaps it’s easy to see the girls’ bond with each other as encouraging or as a symbol of unity, but it is also rather inevitable that a connection will be made between people forced into any particular situation, whether positive or negative. The repeated shots of Tata, one of the strongest personalities, riding in the Cairo streets on a stolen horse, is not necessarily an image of joy or freedom, but rather the very lack of it.
The subject matter documented in These Girls is undeniably crucial, and Rached’s effort at not only finding these girls, but also gaining their trust and their stories is commendable. What remains in question is her ability to convey not only the dire situation of these women, but also the political implications involved in presenting a cultural issue that affects women on a global level. While the women in Rached’s documentary had my complete attention, I had not so much the feeling of participating in a dialogue as that unfortunate tendency of not being able to avert my eyes from a car wreck.
As someone who works in the social services field with Arab girls and young women struggling with issues of violence, I found the film educational and quite relevant to my work. But I also understand where Jenny is coming from in her review. However, as the film was produced by Studio Masr, an Egyptian company, I feel that the target audience is Egyptians and the filmmakers’ intent is to humanize Cairene street girls in their eyes. As Tahani explains in a 2007 interview about the film:
Because I meet these girls in the streets like everyone else in Egypt does and I see them, I wanted to decode their private world and I started to prepare for that movie from 1997 and began filming in 2004. It was produced by Studio Misr.
Prior to the filming I did a field study with the production group that lasted for six months in order to build trust between us and the street girls. Through them I came to know a lot about the charity organizations that provide for them as well as the psychological support they receive through organizations such as Amal (Hope) to which Abla Hind was one of its members. She is featured in the film with her compassionate personality radiating love and humanity; she assumes the multiple roles of friend, surrogate mother and gives them all the love that they have missed.
In my mind, I wanted the viewer to interact with the girls, to come to love them and empathize with their down-trodden condition. These girls live hard lives; they are victims to circumstances such as broken families which they escaped from the moment they could get a chance.
After that another set of circumstances spirals into effect and that is the oppression of society to these girls and we are all responsible for that. In a sense, they are victims of a society that also suffers from poverty and need, a society where making a living has become difficult as is the preservation of one’s humanity and dignity.
Unfortunately, because of the girls use of “bad language” in the film, it was banned in Egyptian cinemas. But Tahani felt that she should not have been expected to censor the girls’ speech. She explains:
When I shoot a documentary, a realistic film, I cannot ask the girls to speak in a limited vocabulary, these are words we hear on the streets every day. I believe that reality and truth should be exposed without any intervention or censorship. I am happy that my film is being shown in festivals and various cultural centers throughout this country which proves that there are venues and other possible options to show the movie apart from the commercial outlets.
In the same interview, Tahani reflects on the girls’ plight and what is needed to improve their lives.
Personally, what they lack is love; these girls need love and warmth such as one would find in the character of Abla Hind; she does not attempt to change the circumstances of these girls and offers pragmatic advice. These homes and welfare organizations should basically change the way they operate; they also need funding from the government and support from society at large beyond the mere slogans. Each one of us should reconsider the way we treat these girls; the film screams to solve their problem.
These Girls has won critical acclaim and made the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival.
Director Tahani Rached was born in Egypt in but settled in Quebec in 1966. She worked as a National Film Board of Canada staff filmmaker form 1980 to 2004. Rached never studied film but learned by doing with the support of other filmmakers.
Review of These Girls in Slant Magazine available online
Review of These Girls in Al Ahram Weekly Online available online
Interview (2012) with Tahani Rached by Mai Serhan available online
Interview (2007) with Tahani Rached by Nelly Youssef available online
Title: Miroirs et mirages
Author: Monia Mazigh
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Miroirs et mirages is the first novel by Tunisian Canadian Monia Mazigh, who is better known for her work as a human rights activist. Mazigh came to Canada in 1991 to study Finance in Montreal. She subsequently met and married her husband, Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, started a family, and moved to Ottawa. When her husband was wrongfully rendered to Syria in the hysteria that followed 9/11, she campaigned successfully for his return. She has written a memoir about her struggle, Hope and Despair, which has been translated into English.
Miroirs et mirages is quite a departure from her activism as the scope of the novel is relatively small; it simply follows the sometimes intersecting lives of several women living in Ottawa. But the novel is delightful in its focus on these women’s inner lives, their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the many challenges they face. There is Emma, a Tunisian, who has fled her emotionally abusive husband and now has to figure out how to rebuild her life with her young daughter in toe. There is Samia, a Palestinian, who enjoys finding new ways to spend the money of her husband, a businessman working in Dubai. There is Samia’s daughter, Lama, a university student, who is trying to figure out just where she fits in her family, her community, and Canada. There is Sally, a second-generation Pakistani Canadian university student, who has taken to wearing the niqab (face veil) much to the chagrin of her dotting parents. There is Louise, a French Canadian university student, who has converted to Islam and hopes to marry the man who introduced her to the faith. Then there is Alice, Louise’s mother, who is appalled by her daughter’s conversion and fears she may be losing the most important person in her life.
The title Miroirs et mirages illustrates the overall theme of the novel as the reader explores how the inner struggles of one character reflect those of another and how several of the characters are struggling with the illusions they have constructed in their attempts to create new identities for themselves.
I greatly enjoyed reading the novel for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it is set in Ottawa. Ottawa is probably one of the most neglected cities in Canadian Literature with few Canadian writers of renown finding it worth writing about-exceptions being Black Canadian writer Andre Alexis and classic Canadian Children’s author Brian Doyle. It was refreshing to read a Canadian novel which describes locations I know and explores the fascinating interactions across culture, language, and religion which are possible in our rather unassuming Nation’s Capital.
Mazigh is a striking new talent in Francophone Canadian fiction who writes with confidence and demonstrates a versatility in the creation and handling of her diverse characters. The reader sometimes only catches glimpses of these women’s worlds yet these glimpses are enough to create powerful impressions of these women’s histories and personalities.
I had the opportunity to attend the launch of Mazigh’s novel in Ottawa at Librairie du centre, a French-Language bookstore on 435 Donald Street . The majority of those in attendance were French Canadians who had read and greatly enjoyed the novel. They asked probing questions about the theme and “message” of the novel. Mazigh asserted that the novel has no “message”; it is not a polemic. Since that event, I have been thinking seriously about the importance of fiction that allows us to “walk in the shoes” of people we may never meet in real life. Fiction, or I should say good fiction, is not polemical, it does not provide easy answers but instead shows how there often are no easy answers and the world is more often full of shades of grey instead of stark Black and White.
At a time when there is so much debate around the presence of Muslim communities in Canada, particularly Quebec, Mazigh’s novel should definitely be welcomed because it simply allows readers to see the diversity and complexity of Muslim women’s lives and experiences. It certainly does not depict an idealized or romanticized view of Muslim women’s lives, as a great deal of the polemical writings by Canadian Muslim women seem to do as a form of resistance to Islamphobia. As Suzanne Giguere writes in her review of the novel in Le Devoir:
À l’heure où les débats autour du voile ne font pas l’unanimité — le voile est perçu par plusieurs intellectuels comme un symbole de l’oppression de la femme, un emblème politique —, Monia Mazigh refuse d’ériger des barrières et tente de créer avec son roman un espace de dialogue. À la fois analyse sociale et peinture intimiste, Miroirs et mirages évoque les questions identitaires auxquelles les femmes immigrantes de religion musulmane sont sans cesse confrontées. Leur situation a souvent été évoquée dans des ouvrages à portée sociologique qui ne prennent bien souvent qu’insuffisamment en compte les données humaines que retranscrivent ces témoignages, ce que permet l’oeuvre romanesque.
The novel points to some quite serious social problems facing Muslim communities in diaspora, some of these problems, like domestic violence, are common to Canadian society as a whole, some, like the conflicts which religious fundamentalism can cause within a family, although perhaps shared by other faith communities, are more particular to Canada’s Muslim communities. By exploring these issues through fiction, Mazigh is able to avoid the many pitfalls we see when these issues are tackled in the form of polemics, which are often defensive and reactionary. She simply presents the reader a situation to reflect on.
Mazigh’s novel isn’t just about Muslim women. My favourite character in the novel is Alice. Alice disapproval of her daughter Louise’s conversion to Islam comes from a variety of experiences and beliefs which are far more complex than simple Islamophobia. The struggles of Quebecois women of Alice’s generation are not well understood outside of Quebec or by newcomers to the province, but it is clear that Mazigh has worked to try to understand women like Alice and this comes through in her writing.
I highly recommend the novel for anyone who enjoys writing about women’s lives. It is currently only available in French but I encourage those of you who are bilingual but have never read French for pleasure to check it out as the French is quite easy to read. The movement to create a Bilingual Canada was aimed at bridging the social and cultural divides between English and French Canadians and facilitating dialogue between these “Two Solitudes“. The fact that many new Canadians like Mazigh are also writing in French should make it even clearer that using the language to explore other people’s worlds through fiction is crucial to building a more socially inclusive and integrated Canada.
Monia Mazigh’s Blog
Review in French by Le Devoir available online
Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada International available online
Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada available online
Government by Magic Spell is a fascinating short story written by Somali feminist writer Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi. This short story is not easy to find here in North America. If you have an edition of the Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1992, then you might be in luck. This collection brings together 20 short stories written between 1980 to 1991. However, the story is well-known among Kenyan high school students as it is part of a compilation of short stories from North and East Africa which is mandatory reading for English Literature students. This complication also contains Herzi’s other well-known short story, Against the Pleasure Principle, which confronts the practice of female circumcision. I had hoped to find out more online about Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, but unfortunately, like so many African authors of her generation, I cannot.
But, thanks to the BBC, more people outside of East Africa, will be familiar with this short story as it was chosen to be read as part of the BBC’s The Human Cradle Series, which featured readings of three contemporary short stories by writers from the Horn of Africa. The other short stories included Saba by Eritrean author Suleiman Addonia. According to the BBC site:
In Sulaiman Addonia’s new short story ‘Saba’, a former cinema employee decides to create a ‘cinema’ of his own inside a refugee camp. Read by Abukar Osman.
The first of three contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Produced by Emma Harding
About the author: Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has lived in London since 1990. His first novel, The Consquences of Love (Vintage) was published in 2009.
The second story, The Invisible Map, by Ethiopian writer Maaza Megiste, is described on the site as follows:
In Maaza Mengiste’s new short story, ‘The Invisible Map’, a young Ethiopian woman, hoping for a better life in Europe, finds herself trapped in a Libyan prison. Read by Adjoa Andoh.
The second in our series of contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Produced by Emma Harding
About the author: Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, has been translated into several languages and was a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She teaches at NYU and currently lives in New York City.
It is important to keep in mind that the story was written some time between 1980 to 1991. Described as a “satirical parable of power and corruption”, the story exposes the machinations of Somali clan politics but also holds lessons for anyone concerned about justice and democracy.
The story begins with Halima at the age of 10, who we learn, has been possessed by a jinn, better known to Westerners as Genies. Halima had been ill for several months, but the local religious healer, or Waadad, soon discovers that the origins of her illness are supernatural. An infant jinn which she had accidentally stepped on one night in front of the bathroom has possessed her. Luckily for Halima, and soon her village, the jinn is benevolent and helpful. The people of the village soon believe that Halima’s jinn can give her the power to foretell the future and heal the sick. Halima is able to acquire a great deal of power and autonomy for a woman because of her family and clan being in awe of her jinn. Halima is able to refuse all the men who proposed marriage to her, including the Waadad. Halima’s jinn is perceived to be the reason for her clan’s worldly success and she is seen as a blessing to her family. For that reason, she is summoned from her village to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where many of her fellow clan members have gained the most powerful positions in government. As Herzi describes:
It had all started with one of their men who had become very powerful in the government. He had called his relatives and found big government jobs for them. They, in turn, had called relatives of theirs until the government virtually had been taken over by Halima’s people. And that had meant quick riches for everyone concerned. Nor had they been very scrupulous about getting what they wanted. Anything that stood in their way had to be pushed aside or eliminated.
Halima’s fellow clan members want to use her powers in order to consolidate their political power, which they have established over a short 10 years, despite many of them being illiterate, although still taking up government positions. The capital’s water system is consolidated so that Halima can placate the jinn but also cast a spell which cures all of the capital’s residents of their curiosity, so they will no longer ask questions about the current state of their government and the actions of Halima’s clan.
We learn from the story about the belief in the power of jinn within traditional Somali Culture. The story discusses ritual sacrifices made in honour of the jinn, in order to keep them placated and for the entire clan to benefit from the jinn’s benevolence. Based on my own experience, I can vouch that belief in jinn and their ability to possess people is quite commonplace among contemporary Muslims, and still strong amongst members of the Somali diaspora. But it is interesting to conjecture how the role of jinns in traditional Muslim African cultures could be seen as a throwback to earlier pre-Islamic beliefs in ancestor spirits. In the story, we learn that the parents of Halima’s jinn even come to visit her in order to advise her on the proper care of their child. What I find truly compelling about the story is how Halima manipulates people’s fear of her jinn in order to gain power, both over her own life, which as a woman would have ordinarily been quite limited, and then political power within her clan.
Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi available online
For me, Black History Month is not only about celebrating the contributions of my fellow Black Canadians, it is about remembering the impact that the enslavement of Black peoples has had on Africa and the world. It’s about building on the strengths of the Black community in Ottawa by working across the socio-economic, religious, ethno-cultural, and linguistic differences of the diversity of individuals who make up our community. It’s about examining how anti-Black racism still exists within Canadian society and recommitting myself to challenging it by trying to understand why it persists and how it affects my life and the lives of my fellow Black Canadians.
This year, I was honoured to be invited to speak about youth engagement through arts and media at the launch of Black History Month at the City of Ottawa and I was humbled to be presented with a Community Builder Award by Black History Ottawa. For me, Black History Month has definitely started out with a bang.
I have been asked by Muslim Link to write a piece commemorating Black History Month. I feel obligated to take this opportunity to admit something: I often find it frustrating to be around Muslims during Black History Month. Why? Because, although there is often a celebration of Black converts to Islam, like Malcolm X, and condemnation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade perpetrated by the West, there is little, if any, examination of the history of slavery in Muslim societies or of the persistence of anti-Black racism within these societies as well as within Muslim communities in Canada. The reality is I have faced more blatant anti-Black racism from my fellow Muslims than I ever did growing up in a predominantly White community.
Anti-Black racism, which includes beliefs that Blacks are inherently less intelligent, more violent, lazier, dirtier, uglier and more sexually promiscuous than other races, is just as prevalent within Muslim societies as it is in the West, if not more so, because there have not been similar movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, aimed at combatting these prejudices, within Muslim societies.
Unfortunately, although Muslims will often cite the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to demonstrate that racism is condemned in Islam, there isn’t really an examination of whether Muslims over the course of their history actually stuck to these beliefs.
It is important for Muslims to look deeper at their particular societies of origin in order to see how the enslavement of Black peoples in these societies has led to the development of anti-Black racism. For example, the fact that in several Arab dialects the word ‘abd, meaning slave, is used to refer to any Black person demonstrates that in these societies the equation of Black people with slaves still persists.
To read the my complete article visit Muslim Link
Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery by John Hunwick (academic essay available online)
Religions and the abolition of slavery – a comparative approach by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)
Islam and Slavery by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)
Islamic Abolitionism in the Western Indian Ocean from c. 1800 by William G. Clarence‐Smith (academic essay available online)
“Slaves of One Master:” Globalization and the African Diaspora in Arabia in the Age of Empire by Matthew S. Hopper (academic essay available online)
Straight, No Chaser: Slavery, Abolition, and the Modern Muslim Mind by Bernard K. Freamon (academic essay available online)
Oxford African American Studies Center: Middle East Page
Race and Slavery in the Middle East Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (American University Press in Cairo) Review by Gamal Nkrumah available online
Slavery and South Asian History (Indiana University Press)
Title: Before the Birth of the Moon
Author: V. Y. Mudimbe
Translator: Marjolijn de Jager
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Year: 1976 (original publication), translation 1989
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Before the Birth of the Moon by Valentin Y. Mudimbe was originally written in French and published in 1976. According to the author, it is set in the mid-sixties during the tumultuous First Republic of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), during the relatively brief reign of President Joseph Kasavubu after the murder of his former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. During the First Republic, DRC was rife with rebel movements in various provinces. The two central characters of the novel, “The Minister” and Ya, his mistress, are wrapped up in this political turmoil.
“The Minister”, is ambitious and wishes to earn favour with the President, who is never directly named. He is married with children but this doesn’t prevent him from enjoying himself with a few mistresses. One of these mistresses, Ya, he believes he is in love with but we learn that she actually finds him irritating although she appreciates his money. Ya hails from a rural area in a province where her ethnic group is now rebelling against the national government. At the beginning of the novel, Ya has no interest in this as she has come to Kinshasa to enjoy herself. Although she originally left her village in order to avoid a marriage arranged by her father and pursue college studies, she soon left school to enjoy the dazzling city life of bars and nightclubs and found a way to live off men in exchange for sexual favours. In most English descriptions of the novel Ya is described as a prostitute but I do not think this description is correct. She is more a woman who is “kept” but she feels free to pick and choose who gets to keep her. This is why she initially decides to dump “The Minister” early in the novel because she finds him irritating. “The Minister” is heartbroken. Ya isn’t. Her real lover is her female friend who “The Minister” early on perceives as his main rival. One day, men from Ya’s village break into the apartment she shares with her friend and attack her. They bring her news that her father, who was a village chief and rebel leader, has been murdered by the national government. They demand that she get back with “The Minister” and share any intelligence she can get from him with the rebels. Now, the carefree and careless Ya, finds herself in the precarious position of spy.
Ya easily returns to the welcoming arms of “The Minister” who in the interim has seen himself elevated in the government ranks and has become an initiate in a secret society which claims to be following the ancient rites of his ancestors. This involves making a human sacrifice. “The Minister” offers Ya’s friend/lover as his sacrifice, as he sees her as the main obstacle standing in the way of him truly winning Ya’s heart. He is right because in the wake of her friend’s disappearance Ya eventually succumbs to “The Minister”‘s kindness and finds herself falling in love with him, all the while sharing the political intelligence he shares with her in confidence with the rebel leaders. Ya is set up in a posh apartment in the Ngombe commune of Kinshasa, which was originally designed by Europeans for Europeans. “The Minister” lavishes her with gifts while ignoring the financial needs of his own household. This eventually leads to tragedy when his son ends up contracting an infection from his circumcision, which “The Minister’s” wife had wanted to have performed in a hospital, but she is told by “The Minister” that that is too expensive. “The Minister” refuses to see his responsiblity for his son’s death and instead blames his wife, accusing her of witchcraft. But he soon returns to the highlife of the city with Ya, taking her to parties and introducing her to various national and international dignitaries. But it is only a matter of time before Ya’s betrayal will catch up with them both.
Mudimbe’s novel is a fascinating read. Its narrative style changes from chapter to chapter , switching from the third person, to the second person (unusual in a novel) addressing Ya, to Ya’s and “The Minister’s” first person perspective. Both Ya and “The Minister” are two characters who seem to have no real loyalties either to family, religion or ethno-cultural traditions. Ya attended Roman Catholic school and still holds the churches’ officials in reverence but this does not stop her from leading a life of debauchery. She betrays “The Minister” more out of physical fear due to the constant violence of the rebel leaders than out of loyalty to her ethnicity or father. “The Minister” seems more attracted to the wealth and prestige that his government office can give him than to any real concern for his nation. It’s not even clear if he actually believes in the power of this secret society he joins and even though he loves his son, he doesn’t offer the funds to ensure that he is circumcised in a safe and clean environment nor does he follow the traditional mourning practices of his culture. Ya and “The Minister” believe they love each other but Ya betrays the “The Minister” by spying on him and he betrays her by murdering her friend and then lying about it. As with his other novels, Mudimbe explores political realities through the lives of individuals. It appears that at the heart of many of the political problems of the First Republic of DRC, he is showing is the real problem of insincerity. It is hard to know what people really stand for or really believe in. Even one the of rebel leaders who comes to harass information out of Ya, expresses contempt for the ethnic loyalties of his fellow rebels. He’s a communist and that is where his loyalty lies, although he is working with the rebels who are organizing along ethnic lines. Such cross purposes can only end in disaster and chaos.
I highly recommend reading Before the Birth of the Moon and other works by Mudimbe, both out of an interest in fine writing and the DRC.
About the Author:
Valentin Y. Mudimbe was born in 1941 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the Norman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University. The following biography comes from his Faculty Page at Duke University:
Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University, V.Y. Mudimbe received his Doctorat en Philosophie et Lettres from the Catholic University of Louvain in 1970. In 1997, he became Doctor Honoris Causa at Université Paris VII Diderot, and in 2006, became Doctor Honoris Causa at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Before coming to Duke, he taught at the Universities of Louvain, Paris-Nanterre, Zaire, Stanford, and at Haverford College. Among his publications are three collections of poetry, four novels, as well as books in applied linguistics, philosophy, and social sciences. His most recent publications include: L’Odeur du père (1982), The Invention of Africa (1988), Parables and Fables (1991), The Idea of Africa (1994), and Tales of Faith (1997). He is the editor of The Surreptitious Speech (1992), Nations, Identities, Cultures (1997), Diaspora and Immigration (1999), and editor of a forthcoming encyclopedia on African religions and philosophy. He is also former General Secretary of SAPINA (the Society for African Philosophy in North America) and co-editor with Robert Bates and Jean O’Barr of Africa and the Disciplines (1993).
V.Y. Mudimbe is a Membre Honoraire Correspondant de l’Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre Mer (Belgium); a Member of the Société américaine de philosophie de langue française; as well as of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, and the World Institute for Advanced Phenomenological Research and Learning. He has also served as Chairman of the Board of African Philosophy, and since 2000, as the Chairman of the International African Institute (SOAS, University of London). His interests are in phenomenology and structuralism, with a focus on the practice of everyday language. He regularly teaches on French existentialism, theories of difference, phenomenology, ancient Greek geography, and African themes.
Review of the novel in The New York Times by R. McNight available online
I don’t know when Joseph Knight was born or when he died. I first learned about his story while watch the BBC Documentary Series A History of Scotland. Joseph Knight’s story is also the basis for the novel Joseph Knight by Scottish author James Robertson, a novel with has been ranked as one of the 100 Best Scottish Novels.
What we know of Joseph Knight’s life has been documented for posterity in the records of his case, (“Joseph Knight, a Negro of Africa v. John Wedderburn of Ballindean“) against his master, John Wedderburn which was heard by the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1778.
Joseph Knight is said to have been taken captive as a slave from Guinea in West Africa when he was about eleven or twelve. He was brought on a slave ship to Jamaica. John Wedderburn was a Scottish plantation owner who had made a fortune in Jamaica after escaping the persecution of Jacobites after the battle of Culloden (He subsequently named his plantation Culloden). Wedderburn took a distinct liking to the young Joseph when he saw him for sale. Wedderburn bought the boy, named him after the captain of the slave ship he had been brought to Jamaica on, Joseph Knight, and kept him as a house slave. This meant that Joseph was not subjected to the back-breaking work in the sugar fields of the plantations which even Wedderburn testified later in court would have probably killed the boy. Wedderburn even had Joseph baptised, which was quite uncommon for slaves at the time, and allowed him to be taught how to read and write by the same schoolmaster who taught Wedderburn’s own children. About nine years after purchasing Joseph, in 1769, Wedderburn decided to leave Jamaica and return to the more appealing climate of his Scottish homeland; he took Joseph Knight with him. Wedderburn settled on his estate called Ballidean. But Joseph was growing up, and although allowed to quarter with Wedderburn’s house servants he was still a slave and was not paid a wage, although he was given pocket-money. Joseph asked to acquire a trade and so Wedderburn paid for him to apprentice with a barber in Dundee. During this time, it is likely that Joseph learned of the case of the fugitive slave James Somersett who had successfully appealed to the court in England to be freed from his master in 1772.
Joseph became involved with a female house servant named Annie who became pregnant. This greatly displeased Wedderburn who dismissed Annie, but allowed her to stay at Ballindean to give birth, paid the doctor’s bills and for the funeral of the baby when it subsequently died. However, Joseph continued his relationship with Annie, who had moved to Dundee, and again fathered a child with her. Joseph wanted to be able to work to support his family and demanded that Wedderburn either give him a cottage on his estate for his family or give him wages so that he could provide for them. Otherwise, he was going to leave. Wedderburn refused these demands so Joseph left. Wedderburn successfully appealed to the Justices in Perthshire to enforce his rights of property against Joseph and Joseph was arrested and returned to Wedderburn. As Maclaurin, Joseph Knight’s lawyer in the case Joseph eventually raised against Wedderburn at the Court of Session in Ediburgh, said, according to the court documents which have been written as dialogue in James Robertson’s novel:
‘It was at this point that Mr Wedderburn applied tae the Justices o the Peace o Perthshire tae prevent his taking aff in this mainner, on the grounds that he had aye treated him kindly and furnished him wi claes, bed, board and pocket money, and that in consequence o haein acquired him legitimately in Jamaica he had the richt tae detain him in perpetuity in his service for life. The justices, all, let it be said, guid freens o Mr Wedderburn’s and some wi their ain interests in the plantations, upheld his petition and the pursuer was arrested and returned tae him.’
Knight could not accept remaining as Wedderburn’s slave. He appealed to the Sheriff of Perth who decided in his favour, as he found the laws of slavery that applied in Jamaica did not apply in Scotland. Wedderburn than appealed to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland’s Supreme Civil Court at the time, arguing that Joseph Knight owed him lifetime service. The case was considered so important at the time that it was given a full panel of judges, including a central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Lord Kames (Henry Home). Knight’s lawyers argued in his favour on several fronts including raising the fear that Wedderburn intended to send Joseph back to Jamaica, where the slavery laws would mean that Joseph could be punished for desertion. According to Maclaurin in Robertson’s novel:
The defender, Mr Wedderburn, has been at pains in aw his written submissions tae the court, tae emphasise his kindness and generosity tae the pursuer. We will leave aside, for the moment, whether these words can ever be applied tae a relationship founded upon ae man’s absolute power ower anither. But we note that he seeks frae the court no jist the richt tae the pursuer’s service in perpetuity, but also the richt tae send or cairry him back tae Jamaica if he should choose it. He insists that he has nae intention o daein that, but, as he acquired him legitimately there, he must be entitled tae return him there. Whit, though, would be the purpose o assertin that richt, were it no tae exercise it? My lords, if Mr Knight behaved in Jamaica as he has done here, that is if he claimed his freedom and acted upon that claim, he would be subjected tae the maist horrific punishments for desertion. Are we tae believe that if he were sent tae that island, it would be for his security and happiness and the guid o his soul?
The records relating to the Knight v Wedderburn case survive among Court of Session records in the NAS (reference CS235/K/2/2). They consist of five bundles of papers, including an extract of process by the Sheriff Depute of Perth (20 May 1774), an extract of process by the Lords of Council and Session (30 May 1774), and memorials for John Wedderburn and Joseph Knight (1775). Of these, the memorials are the most interesting. In their respective memorials each man presents his side of the story and legal arguments concerning the definition of perpetual servitude. Wedderburn blamed Knight’s relationship with another servant, and her subsequent pregnancy, as the cause of a falling out between master and servant and Knight’s desire to leave his service. Knight’s 40-page memorial includes an account of his life (including his baptism and marriage in Scotland), evidence – partly in French – on enslavement of Africans by their chiefs as judicial punishments, and descriptions of the miseries of slavery in the colonies.
The court found in Joseph Knight’s favour. According to judge Lord Kames:
….the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro’s service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701, c.6. from being sent out of the country against his consent.’
Although in the plantations they have laid hold of the poor blacks, and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to our Christian religion. Is a man a slave because he is black? No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not of our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and child, let him remain there.
Joseph Knight won his freedom from Wedderburn but we know nothing of his life after this. Was he able to find employment and support his family? What was life like for his children in Scotland being of mixed race? James Robertson, in his 2003 novel Joseph Knight, mixes fact and fiction by having John Wedderburn hire a Dundee private detective to go looking for Joseph Knight 25 years after the court case. In a 2011 interview, Robertson discusses his novel, which won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Award in 2004:
I first came across a brief mention of the story of Joseph Knight in a book about Dundee in, I think, 2000.
There were gaps in the historical record – not least being a complete absence of information about what happened to Knight after he faced down his master John Wedderburn in court – but this simply meant that fiction came into its own as a means of reconstructing the past. In fact, the cast of real-life characters – Knight and Wedderburn themselves, other planters, slaves and their families, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and all the eccentric, hard-drinking judges, philosophers, poets and lawyers who made Enlightenment Edinburgh such a vibrant place – was so extraordinary that it was tempting (though not very) to tone them down a bit to make them more credible. As I gathered information, I became fascinated by the profound humanity of some of the people in the story, which was matched only by the hypocrisy of men in Edinburgh coffee houses debating what constituted a civil society while enjoying the products of slave labour thousands of miles away.
Somebody directed me to an aphorism of the Nigerian writer Ben Okri: ‘Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free themselves for future flowerings.’ This gave me the key to what I felt the book was about: Joseph Knight, or his story, came to symbolise a Scotland full of possibilities, past, present and future. I’d always been interested in how different times can speak to one another, how our understanding of ‘then’ can influence our understanding of ‘now’ and vice versa, and here was that same thing happening again.
…Despite good reviews and the reception of both the Scottish Arts Council and Saltire Society Book of the Year awards, and although many readers have told me how much they enjoyed it, of my four novels it has sold the least well. I don’t know why this is, but it makes me all the more grateful that it got the recognition it did back in 2003–04. You can never tell what books will survive their own times – many bestsellers are gone and forgotten a decade after first publication – but I like to think that someone, some day far in the future, may pick up Joseph Knight and find that it opens a door for them into the strange but perhaps not irrelevant world of Enlightenment Edinburgh and Scotland’s deep engagement with slavery and the plantations.
Slavery, freedom or perpetual servitude? – the Joseph Knight case (The National Archives of Scotland) article available online
Guardian Review (2003) of the novel Joseph Knight by James Robertson by Ali Smith available online
Extract from James Robertson’s novel Joseph Knight available online
Interview (2011) with James Robertson available online
Scotland and the Slave Trade (National Library of Scotland) article available online
Scotland and Abolition by Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte article available online