The Glory and the Mystery of Algeria’s 20th International Book Fair

The Algiers’ International Book Fair (SILA) is set to open its doors tomorrow, October 29. The event, now in its twentieth year, is scheduled to run through November 7. Nadia Ghanem previews some of the highlights:

By Nadia Ghanem

SILA 2015On October 25, SILA’s commissioner held a press conference to both publicize this year’s book fair and to highlight some important — and some strange — information on the event’s forthcoming scope and structure.

Communicating the details of one of Africa’s largest book fairs just a few days before opening might seem last-minute, but it does have the merit of building up excitement and a thoroughly enjoyable chaos in a nation where last-minute always leaves us ample time to arrive late anyway.

The guest of honour this year is France, said to have invited a number of high-flying speakers and to have organized a special series of activities. We have had little to no information on the specifics other than SILA’s announcement that Amin Maalouf cannot attend the event due to illness. We did not know the French Academy member had been invited and had accepted, but now we know he won’t be present and that he’s unwell.

The French embassy just published their full program yesterday.

With 53 countries present in total, 25,000 titles, and 54% Algerian publishing houses (to keep this an Algerian-owned event), what can we look forward to?

Around the detective novel

The European and North African authors’ rencontre will run its seventh edition during SILA, with a two-day discussion of the detective-novel genre. On October 30 and 31, authors, scholars and members of the public will meet to talk about “detective fiction from a minor genre to an archetype,” “is life a detective novel?” and “the detective fiction genre in Art.”

In Algeria, the detective novel was born in 1970 with Youcef Khader and SM15, the novel’s fearless protagonist. The genre has steadily grown since, and although it receives relatively little publicity, it is productive. Algerian detective novels have gone from Ian Fleming-type stories and characters produced by authors such as Youcef Khader and Larbi Abahri, to jaded and troubled characters in books by Salim Aissa and Mohamed Benayat in the 1980s. They have also explored the country’s politics, as with Adlene Meddi and Mohamed Benchicou post-2000.

Algerian detective fiction isn’t always dark: Amara Lakhous has given the genre a human, tender, and humorous aspect, while Boualem Sansal has stretched its prose to the literary. But in the Algerian detective-novel dimension there is one inevitable rule: you cannot escape Yasmina Khadra with his Inspector Llob series and his more recent monkey inquiry.

The names just mentioned do reflect one serious facet of the genre in Algeria: very few women authors have participated in this literary production, both as authors and as characters. In my own private investigation, I have so far only come across two women authors. The pioneer Zehira Houfani, who seems to be Algeria’s first woman detective novelist with two novels published in French in 1986. Nassima Bouloufa, just published in Arabic in 2014, is perhaps the second.

During this year’s SILA, perhaps they will tell us why so few Algerian women write detective novels.

The Assia Djebar prize

prixAfter Assia Djebar passed away in February, ANEP (Algeria’s National Edition and Publicity House) created a literary prize to commemorate the author’s work and name. The Assia Djebar Prize will, every year, reward the best novel written in French, Arabic, or Tamazight. For this first edition, the prize will be given during SILA, in a ceremony held on November 4. Although we know who the members of the jury are, and that it is presided over by Algerian novelist Merzag Begtache, neither a long nor a shortlist of selected novels has been made public.

The programme

The programme is as rich as SILA’s venue is large. Here are a few highlights:

Thursday, October 29  – a day dedicated to Cultural identity, with onomastic and national toponymy as a special focus. Worth noting is a peculiar private panel with restricted entry called Professional Day for Algerian and French editors. It will be presided by France’s Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin and Algeria’s Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi.

Friday, October 30 – a day dedicated to Language and literature in Arabic. Running in parallel will be panels discussing Digitization.

Saturday, October 31Platforms, a space where authors and the public will meet and talk, will welcome Waciny Laredj at noon.

Sunday, November 1 – Commemoration Day in Algeria. On November 1, 1954, the revolution began. Special talks will be given on historical approaches.

Monday, November 2 – a day dedicated to Islam and modernity. Algerian authors Maissa Bey, Rachid Boudjedra and Amin Zaoui are expected on Platforms.

Tuesday, November 3 – Algeria’s Minister of Education will open the day to talk about Schools and Books, where books seem to mostly be understood as didactic material.

Wednesday, November 4Literary Criticism, its scope, subjective elements, and its future.

Thursday, November 5 – an afternoon dedicated to literature in Tamazight during which a film will be screened. Why and sigh.

Friday, November 6 – Anouar Benmalek on Platforms at 11 a.m.

And every day, Panaf’ will open a special space between guests and members of the public to discuss Africa and its literature, including theatre and African tales.

Literature in translation and the language question

With France as guest of honour, no doubt books in French will be made available in massive quantities, as is the case every year. In a country where a majority naturally reads, writes, and jokes in several languages, what space will be made for literature in other languages and for literature in translation? In what language will other participating countries promote their literature?

We’ll have to see!

You can follow SILA on twitter @SILAAlger with the hashtag #SILA2015, and on Facebook here.

nadiaNadia is a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she specializes in the ancient languages of Iraq and Syria. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs  at about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.