Obituary: Iraqi-born writer Naim Kattan brought cultures together in Quebec

Naim Kattan (Credit: Wikipedia)

Naim Kattan, the Iraqi-born Jewish writer and cultural mediator, is being eulogized for his immense literary output and promotion of dialogue, in particular, between Jews and francophone Quebecers.

Kattan, an Officer of the Order of Canada and Chevalier of the National Order of Quebec, as well as France’s Légion d’Honneur, died in Paris on July 2 at age 92. In his later years, he divided his time between Montreal where he had lived since 1954 and Paris, where he studied literature at the Sorbonne.

Born in Baghdad in 1928, Kattan published more than 30 books, consisting of novels, stories, poetry and plays, in French, his adopted language after his native Arabic. His most recent work appeared only a few years before his death.

Having escaping rising Arab nationalism in Iraq only to find France intellectually stimulating but rather inward-looking, Kattan often said he felt reborn in multicultural Montreal with its possibility of shaping an open, tolerant society.

Soon after he immigrated, Kattan became active with the new Cercle Juif de la langue française, an initiative of Canadian Jewish Congress to foster understanding between Jews, few of whom then were French-speaking, and the Quebec majority. Kattan founded its publication Bulletin, a groundbreaking platform to further that cultural exchange.

The gregarious Kattan, recognizable by his handlebar mustache, became a friend and collaborator of some of Quebec’s leading writers and thinkers, and was a common figure on its social scene.

He is still best known for his debut novel, the 1975 Adieu Babylon (later translated as Farewell, Babylon), the first of a semi-autobiographical trilogy capturing the vibrant 2,500-year-old Jewish community and cosmopolitan city in which he grew up, a world that would soon come to an end.

Throughout his writing, identity, exile and the search for belonging and love were frequent themes. Kattan’s companion of some 30 years was Annie Goldmann, the French-Jewish sociologist of cinema, who died last year. He fell ill in June, exactly a year to the day of her passing.

In addition to his fiction, Kattan’s literary criticism and essays appeared in publications in Canada, France and elsewhere. He was a regular contributor to the influential Montreal newspaper Le Devoir for decades.

He also taught at the Université du Québec à Montréal and was, notably, a researcher for the landmark Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the 1960s whose report set the course for the Canada of today.

From 1967-1991, Kattan was head of the writing and publishing division of the Canada Council for the Arts and later assistant director, playing a key role in the development of Canadian literature, both English and French.

The Council hailed him as “a man of letters and a great promoter of culture.”

Many of Kattan’s works were translated into English. In 2015, the Canadian publisher Guernica Editions put out his 1991 novel Farida, the story of a Jewish woman, a cabaret singer, in Iraq before the Second World War.

His longtime friend, the former publisher Jacques Allard, said Kattan was compelled to write, up to his final brief illness. He often would say that, despite his voluminous oeuvre, he could not stop putting his thoughts on paper, “otherwise, he would have nightmares.”

When Concordia University gave him an honorary degree in 2006, Jewish studies professor Norma Baumel Joseph lauded Kattan as an “influential shaper of our pluralistic society.”

“Today, more than ever, he bridges the history of our civilization with its heartbreakingly distant potential. It is our great good fortune that he made that long ago choice to make his home in Montreal.”

The writer’s son, Emmanuel Kattan, a Columbia University professor, said that, although his father had spent his last couple of years in Paris, his wish was to be buried in Montreal “in the country that welcomed him more than 60 years ago.”