A Short Walk through Tahir Wattar’s ‘The Earthquake’

Guest Post by Nadia Ghanem

Interested in the meditations of homicidal religious men revolting against wealth redistribution and threatening retribution? Tahir Wattar’s The Earthquake might be for you.

What do the thoughts of a shaykh, whose inner self is only at one with the love of cash and land ownership, revolve around—other than freebies?

For novelist Tahir Wattar, your regular raving shaykh’s mind churns mostly around a seething hatred of the poor and paedophilia. All conventional so far. Then Wattar pushes a little further and imagines what could trigger utter panic, and energetic action, in that kind of a man? It turns out that the trigger is: almighty communists. And these communists are at the head of a government ready to confiscate the land of devout men.

It is Algeria, nationalisation is looming, and Shaykh Abdelmajid Boularwah is trying to act ahead of its implementation.

It is on the rolling thoughts of impending portfolio annihilation that childless shaykh Boularwah, zealous religious scholar and teacher, sets out on a peripatetic mission to find his estranged relatives in Constantine, to sign all his land over to them, in the hope of thwarting the government’s confiscation.

The Earthquake, by Algerian writer Tahir Wattar, translated by William Granara, is a walk, paced over less than 24 hours, in the mind of shaykh Boularwah and in labyrinthine Constantine. Boularwah’s mind is no maze though; it is a one track run pumped up by his trust in God and by His promised earthquake (ayat 2 of surah 22 ‘The Pilgrimage’).

Wattar sketches scenes shaped by conversation fragments of Boularwah’s present and past. Street vendors, child shoe-shiners, food sellers, soothsayers, and prostitutes recount their daily hardships while the shaykh’s expletives illustrate the dichotomy that dwells within him: “Get away from me, you despicable man, you son of a bitch, you pimp… there is no power or strength except in God!”

What Tahir Wattar has put to pen is a short book-length illustration of the infamous hogra, the hatred the self-titled ‘elite’ feel for all Algerians who do not belong to their class, and which continues to slowly strangle the country today, just as shaykh Boularwah strangles his child-wives. The shaykh explains “My father was fiercely proud of being an Algerian, even though he was totally insensitive to other Algerians whom he regarded merely as servants and workers, like stones in a valley suited only to be trampled on.”

Boularwah is a well of cracking philosophical reflections on humanity: The poor are “like locusts, devouring everything in their path through the city on their way to the top of the hill, dropping their eggs to hatch behind them.”….“Look how pathetic they are. Their lives mean nothing to them and they’re not fazed in the least about dying. They’ve already died a thousand and one deaths!”

The Earthquake was first published (in Arabic) in 1974. Its portrayal of the contrast between teary-eyed talks about God, while holding a Kalashnikov to the temple of those who remain unconvinced, was said to have predicted the bloodshed of the 1990s. For instance, with scenes such as this: Boularwah goes to the shrine of his early years and pledges an offering—a full box of candles, scrooge on a spending spree—should his plea be answered. He prays “that the fires of civil unrest consume them”. Them being: “the government, the poor people, the workers, students and unionists. Rebuild a new nation, populated only by us, the noble classes, people of good stock.”

By all accounts, half of his prayer came true.

I don’t see that the book ‘predicted’ something that every Algerian hadn’t already realised, or hadn’t already sensed straight after independence if not during. But let’s leave pseudo-politics to experts in DC, there remains the finale:

What does a hallucinating, drained shaykh, assailed by visions of his vexing past of sterility, decide to do while on a bridge full of people? Wouldn’t you like to know.

The Earthquake
By Tahir Wattar
Translated by William Granara
179 pages

Nadia Ghanem is a reader based in London and tweets at @ayatghanem.


  1. Hi Nadia,

    What’s your take on Granara’s translation? From one translator to the next, Arabic translation certainly seems to be a very tricky and uneven business!

    Excellent review btw.. hope to read more from you!

    1. Hm, let me ditto that tricky and uneven business… I think it wouldn’t hurt if Arabic literary translation were more professionalized (as a stand-alone profession, not as part of the academy), but that would require that folks other than Humphrey would have to be making a living at it…

      And I look forward to Nadia’s thoughts on the translation.

      1. Insta-judgments so far:

        Denys Johnson-Davies – thumbs up
        William Hutchins – thumbs down
        Peter Theroux – thumbs up
        (feel free to add any other names)

        It’s a roulette for us readers!

        1. Honestly, publishers need to do MUCH more work in vetting translators. It is just LAZY of them to engage certain…folks. Ask around, for the love of Maged!

        2. We also really need some nice Arabic-Eng translation smackdowns. In Cairo, maybe Bikya Books & Cafe would be interested in hosting one of these. In London…?

  2. What’s a translation smack-down? Each read yours and the howling mob decides? Terrifying… But what fun!

    And re: your translator series and the comment above, it’s interesting how many literary translators assume that it’s impossible to make a living from translation. It’s simply not the case and I can’t work out why they’re so insistent it is. It seems a little precious to me. HD has it spot on when he talks about the importance of getting your hands on everything you can, good or bad, and learning that way.

    Love your site by the way.

    1. Yes, although the literary mob is perhaps a bit too polite to howl.

      Well, I haven’t tried, so I don’t know. But Tiina Nunnally, who has a “translators’ rules” slot tomorrow, underlined to me very clearly that she was a professional translator, and that’s how she made her living, full stop.

      And thanks. Look forward to seeing /Vertigo/… and to your participation in a future, brawling smackdown…

  3. Thanks Zuber 🙂 Re the translation, I haven’t looked at the Arabic version of the novel, so I’m judging unfairly but I’ve consistently found that when I encounter stale English (for a translation from Arabic) I am certain it can’t be from the original version. Arabic can be many things, but not stale (bland, flaky, pwaah…), at least I’ve never met ‘stale’ face to text. And the English version of the Earthquake is stale in a few places. It goes up and down. I imagined that when the translator was getting bored it reflected in the English syntax. But it’s a good book, an interesting idea, and I really liked the end. It made me think of Juha, I still haven’t figured out why. Did you like it Marcia?

    On another note, I’d like to growl “what’s with the use of repetition” I keep reading in modern Arabic lit, it’s so irksome. Repetition of the same sentence untouched, over and over again when, hey, the reader got it the first time. I’m founding this trait in middle eastern lit especially, I’m wondering if it’s the result of living under dictatorships. Anyways, different subject.

    The work of literary translators should be put under the same scrutiny as the work of other translators (I’m a translator, not lit, and I would never get away with the text altering that Frank Wynne (French to English) seems to freely use when getting his hands on Algerian novelists’ work). Here’s my rant in defense of my country men.

    It’s a shame publishing houses don’t seem to care about translations, if only because there’s no doubt money to be made out of this for them. And as Robin says, there is a living to be made out of lit translations.

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