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Memorial: Roy MacSkimming remembering Naïm Kattan, 1928–2021

Naïm Kattan (Courtesy of Emmanuel Kattan)

Naïm Kattan, who died in Paris on July 2 at the age of 92, was a rare being – an influential cultural force in both English and French Canada. From the mid-1960s to the late ’80s, Kattan and his distinctive bushy moustache were ubiquitous at literary events across the country. As the head of Writing and Publishing at the Canada Council for the Arts, he was involved with the funding of these events and the books they were promoting, but he wasn’t there to take personal credit. He simply wanted to demonstrate the Council’s support and encouragement with his presence. 

Kattan was intercultural to the core. Born in 1928 in Iraq’s ancient Jewish community, he grew up bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic. In his teens, he was drawn to French language and culture, which he studied at the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Baghdad. As portrayed in Adieu, Babylone (1975), the first in Kattan’s trilogy of autobiographical novels (translated by Sheila Fischman as Farewell, Babylon, 1976), life in Iraq had become increasingly dangerous for Jewish people. In 1947, he left for Paris on a scholarship to study French literature at the Sorbonne. Seven years later, at the age of 26, he emigrated a second time, crossing the Atlantic to Montreal.    

Kattan quickly proved an effective intermediary between Montreal’s Jewish and francophone cultures. Mistrust between the two persisted following a period of antisemitism in Quebec during the 1930s and ’40s. Kattan had a newcomer’s idealistic belief that both communities, being minorities, needed only to get to know each other to discover mutual sympathy. 

He became active in the Cercle juif de langue franҫaise, an initiative of the Canadian Jewish Congress to foster understanding between Jewish and French Canadians, editing its monthly bulletin and inviting leading Québécois writers to address its meetings. One of the speakers was André Laurendeau, the distinguished editor of the intellectual Montreal daily Le Devoir, who in his youth held antisemitic views. Laurendeau gladly seized the opportunity to make amends before a Jewish audience.

In 1957, Laurendeau invited Kattan to write literary articles for Le Devoir, where Kattan continued to be a regular contributor for decades. When Laurendeau became co-chair of the federal government’s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963, he hired Kattan to come to Ottawa as a researcher and writer of the Commission’s report, which led to the adoption of the Official Languages Act that ultimately made Canada officially bilingual. 

Kattan eventually made the move to the Canada Council in 1967. As the Council’s sole literature officer, he covered the country administering modest grant programs for authors and literary magazines in both official languages. At first, there were relatively few of either, but as a new and ambitious generation of writers and publishers came of age, the landscape changed radically. In 1972, Pierre Trudeau’s government responded with $1.2 million in funding to support book publishing – a considerable sum at the time – and gave it to the Council to distribute.

All at once, Kattan’s budget and responsibilities multiplied, and he became the director of the Council’s Writing and Publishing section. As a writer himself, he understood writers and their milieu, and this – in combination with his intellectual heritage and naturally gregarious personality – made him the right person in the right place at the right time.  

Kattan knew he needed additional staff with diverse expertise to complement his own. A key hire was Robin Farr, an experienced book publisher, who was brought in to create and administer the new block grant program for publishing. Kattan also relied on the efficiency and judgment of Katharine Benzekri, whom he made his chief administrator; she substituted for him during his frequent travels on Council business. He oversaw the work of his staff to ensure it met Council standards, but practically never involved himself in the details.

I can attest to this since I succeeded Robin Farr in 1977 and worked with Kattan for the next five years. By this time, the Council was funding not only writers, publishers, and literary and arts magazines, but also translations of Canadian authors between English and French (and later into foreign languages), public readings, cooperative projects in promotion and distribution, and even a national book festival. 

Kattan lived in Ottawa during the workweek but took the Friday afternoon train home to Montreal to spend weekends with his family. After retiring from the Council in 1991, he concentrated on writing. During his career, he published some 30 books, both fiction and literary essays, which were translated into several languages. He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1983, as well as a Chevalier of the French Légion d’Honneur in 2002 for his contributions to francophone culture.

My favourite memory of Kattan is that, whenever we were working after hours at the Council, he would close the door to his office and phone his young son, Emmanuel, in Montreal. Now an admired novelist himself, Emmanuel Kattan told me his father “believed in the power of stories. He helped Canadian authors from all backgrounds share their stories with the world. He strove to bring together different communities to be enriched by each other’s cultures. From these encounters grew new works of art and enduring friendships, which he carried with him until the end of his life.”

In his later years, Kattan divided his time between Montreal and Paris. As his son observes, his wish was to be buried in Montreal, “in the country that welcomed him more than 60 years ago.”

By: Roy MacSkimming

August 18th, 2021

9:42 am

Category: Industry News, People

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