PARIS: Mojeb Al-Zahrani has a deep passion for cultural exchange. Born in a small mountain village in southwest Saudi Arabia, he came to Paris in 1980 at the age of 23 to do his doctorate there. His choice was inspired by his love of French literature (which he had read translated into Arabic) and because he was “looking for change and diversity”.
His dissertation, defended at the Sorbonne, dealt with the image of the West in contemporary Arabic novels. After completing his studies, Al-Zahrani returned to Riyadh to teach comparative literature, aesthetics and modern criticism. His ambition was to offer “a different approach” that was shaped by his time in France.
In 2016 he was appointed General Director of the Arab World Institute (IMA) by the Arab Ambassadors Council in Paris, chaired by Jack Lang.
Since then he has launched a number of cultural initiatives at the institute, including the creation of a collection of books on French and Arab figures – “Cent et Un Livres” (One Hundred and One Book) – in collaboration with the King Faisal Prize. The collection focuses on the links between the two cultures and on pushing back stereotypes, or “those simplistic images that hinder thought,” as Al-Zahrani put it.
In 2019, Al-Zahrani was reappointed for a second and, as he says, “last” term in office, after which his goal is to return to his home village.
On a fine June morning, as the sun was reflecting on the Seine, Al-Zahrani welcomed Arab News to his office to discuss literature, the arts and his role in the IMA.
Q: Who is Mojeb Al-Zahrani?
A: I started my life as a farmer in a small village in the middle of the great mountains of southwest Arabia. Then I happened to go to university in Riyadh and came back to France by chance, where I am currently working. And today I feel like going back to my little village. I am a big fan of trees and I love the earth. I want to end my life the way I started it. I have now been a teacher for more than a quarter of a century. I have attended hundreds, if not thousands, of conferences, written seven books, and contributed to two major encyclopedias in Saudi Arabia.
Q: What is the biggest challenge for you as the head of the IMA?
A: Lack of funding is likely a challenge faced by all major cultural structures around the world. We are a non-profit company that depends on (donations). The French Foreign Ministry is very generous towards us, but we still lack funding. That is why we sometimes appeal to the generous people in the Arab countries.
Question: You have written a book about the image of the West in Arabic novels. Why was that important to you?
A: Exploring and discussing our image of others is something that should be done with the utmost seriousness and honesty. France is extremely rich and each region has its own identity, its own image. France, famous for fashion and literature, is not the same as “France of delinquents” or “racist France”. These are the types of (nuances) that we need to understand. You can help us communicate at all levels and in all areas.
Q: How important is French culture to the Arab world?
A: French culture has been important since Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt, which preceded the founding of modern day Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Algeria. This expedition was not a military conquest in the traditional sense of the word as it involved more than 500 scientists chosen and brought by Napoleon to study Egypt and spread a range of modern ideas. Many historians, literary critics and sociologists see this period as the “rebirth” of modern Arab culture. And until the 1960s, the great Arab intellectuals were French-speaking. French culture is present and valued throughout the Arab world, not only in French-speaking countries, but also in the Gulf.
Q: And what is the other way around?
A: I think the Arab culture is also an important part of the (European) culture. There were hundreds of thousands – then millions – of people who came to (Europe) as a result of colonization; in France they came from Egypt, Palestine and North Africa. They came with their language, their beliefs, their heritage, their culture, their literature. In the early 1980s, when I was a student in Paris, there were few names of Arab-Muslim origin in the French media. Today there are thousands in every field – from sports to literature, from music to art. Arab culture is an intimate part of the French cultural scene.
Q: What is special about Saudi culture?
A: Saudi Arabia is an English speaking country. So one cannot expect that the Saudi culture in the broadest sense is just as present in France as the Moroccan, Algerian, Syrian or Lebanese culture. In the 1950s, thanks to the discovery of oil, we really got into the Arab cultural scene. Before that, the living conditions (in Saudi Arabia) were not.
Q: You were a faculty professor in Saudi Arabia until recently. How would you compare today’s Saudi youth to your student days?
A: I am very happy and sometimes even surprised at the opening of the doors (from Saudi Arabia). Ever since I was a student, before I came to France, I have belonged to the “critical intellectuals” or “modernists”. Our aim has always been to improve the situation of women, to change society a little, to open up even more to the outside world. When I return to my little village and see young students smiling and driving their cars, I tell myself that the goal of our entire cultural life was to achieve something
similar to this.
Fortunately today there is a great openness and support for cinema, for the arts in general, as it used to be. I belong to a generation who adored Umm Kulthum, Fayrouz, Sabah, Warda and many other famous Arab singers – men and women – that we saw on Saudi television when it was black and white.
Q: You are a role model for the younger generation of Arabs and especially for young Saudis. What is your message for her?
A: I would use the peasant, rural-inspired metaphor, “You reap what you sow.” I hope that in a rapidly evolving modern world we can diversify culture and art even further.
Adapted from an article originally published by Arab News France.