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Honorary degree citation - Naïm Kattan

By: Norma Baumel Joseph, June 2006

Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Naïm Kattan, gifted author and critic, academic, arts administrator and influential shaper of our pluralist society.

Naim Kattan has said that he was born three times: first in Baghdad, then in Paris and a third birth in Montréal. "Je suis né à Bagdad, c'est réel, c'est mon enfance, ma famille, mes racines. Je suis né à nouveau à Paris, ou j'ai découvert en vrai et pas seulement dans les livres la culture et la civilisation de l'Occident .... Ma troisième naissance, la plus fondamentale, s'est faite à Montréal: une ville qui contient toutes les autres, ou toutes les ethnies, les religions et les langues survivent, mais ou il doit y avoir une langue commune pour que les gens puissent s'entendre et se parler: le francais."

As a young man in the 1940s, Naïm Kattan had every reason to be optimistic. He would meet his friends in the cafés of Baghdad, and they would talk about literature, politics and life. His beautiful and civilized native city was at the crossroads of cultures. It was possible to imagine a future full of hope, cosmopolitan and happy.

It was not to be. The Jews of Baghdad, despite roots dating back 2,500 years in that cradle of civilization, were no longer welcome. The Kattan family narrowly escaped the Farhoud pogrom or 1941; the young Naïm found himself at the Sorbonne in Paris on a scholarship that may have ensured his survival. He would not see his family for five years.

In 1954, he arrived in Montréal, where he could make a new life. Whereas 2,500-year old roots and an elegant mastery of Arabic could not ensure first-tier status in Iraq, here truly everything was possible. Montréal, Québec and Canada needed him. Here he found a rich cultural, social, religious and creative life. Naïm purposefully gave up writing in his native Arabic for 15 years, until he could be fluent in his adopted French.

Starting as a columnist for the Nouveau Journal, he worked on a large number of newspapers and reviews published in the Near East, Europe and Canada, including Le Devoir, Les Lettres nouvelles, Liberté and La Quinzaine littéraire in Paris, Tamarack Review in Toronto and Canadian Literature in Vancouver. Associate professor in the Department of Literary Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal, at the Canada Council of the Arts and the Arts Council of the Montréal Urban Community, critic and jury member-he has become a feature of our country's literary world.

Through very hard work, NaIm Kattan quickly established a reputation which would make him one of our country's most treasured literary figures. Professor, author, poet, critic, leading thinker, juror, broadcaster... there is no area of our literary life in which he has not played a leading role. For example, for 25 years, he headed the Canada Council's Writing and Publication Program.

It is a rare talent that can produce luminous prose and poetry, academic leadership, trenchant criticism and constructive literary leadership, all at once. In addition to a prodigious capacity for sheer hard work, Naïm Kattan has demonstrated a disciplinary range, a generosity of thought and engagement that few can rival.

In French, his adopted language, he has become an authority: professor at Laval and UQAM, researcher for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, literary critic for Le Devoir in Montréal and many prestigious periodicals from Paris to Vancouver. His contributions are sought-after throughout the French-speaking world and well beyond. He has been recognized, honoured and decorated everywhere. Last year he was awarded the prestigious literary Prix du Québec.

Formed by Jewish, Middle Eastern, Western and French cultures, this man has tried to build a pluralistic, open and tolerant society, suffused with beauty and rectitude, first in his native country that was not ready to make this dream a reality. Instead, we have had the good fortune of having him here; of having him agree to passionately become one of us; of having his influence immensely enrich our social, cultural, intellectual and artistic life.

Naïm Kattan's work, as a man of letters and a brilliant guide to the possibilities of a global society, would have been worthy of recognition no matter where he had accomplished it. Today more than ever, he bridges the history of our civilization with all its heartbreakingly distant potential. It is our great good fortune that he made that long-ago choice to make his home in Montréal. We are all immeasurably enriched by it.

Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and an honour to present to you Nalm Kattan, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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