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.