Celebrating the life and writing of Algerian journalist and novelist Sadek Aïssat (1953-2005):
By Nadia Ghanem
In the official calendar of Algeria’s things to celebrate, many dates mark the events and figures that have influenced the course of our culture. We remember victories, putsches, goals, slaps in the face, and the bright light of the full moon. We also observe deaths, a whole lot of them. Systematic assassinations in the 90s considerably increased the number of these types of commemorations and since then, a trend to commemorate goodbyes has been set.
But black, contrary to the wise words of the great Ahlem Mosteghanemi, doesn’t suit us. We are color dealers, we burst into a multitude of blushes, all day long. We deal in the indigo of kohl, the ochre of honeyed wheat, the white of salt lakes in the east, the yellow of the Aures flanks, the leafy green of Tafsut, spring, when nature is reborn.
And speaking of births, August 5 was the day Algerian writer Sadek Aïssat came into this world, and it should be celebrated. Born in 1953 in Reghaïa, he returned to his natal soil in 2005.
Sadek Aïssat was well known as a journalist, but he was also a remarkable novelist. His three novels The Year of the Dogs (L’année des chiens), The Precipice Estate (La cité du precipice) and I Do As the Swimmer in the Sea (Je fais comme fait dans la mer le nageur), published between 1996 and 2002, are top of the list of the beautiful things he bequeathed.
In 2009, Barzakh edition grouped all three novels into one volume titled Saddek Aïssat, Three Novels, an opportunity to pay a much deserved homage, and by the same, to publish his first two works for the first time in Algeria. Aïssat wrote and published all his novels in France. He had moved there with his family on August 10, 1991. Exile is the theme that traverses all his fiction.
“And so I wanted to understand time which, much more than space, is the secret of all exile.”
Aïssat’s novels are defined by his colorful portraits, planet-like bodies he observes just before and at the very point of trauma. In all three novels, he retraces the origin of the faultline that has broken lives apart and made them slip. The Year of the Dogs recounts episodes in the lives of characters like Omar, who celebrated his engagement at 26 and commits suicide at 42 because he hasn’t been able to afford a home to move into and can longer bear hiding in squalid hotels to spend time with his spouse. Or like the fisherman Jucoop Double Face, so named by the boys because his face is huge, who couldn’t care less that his wife is a prostitute because he loves her and she loves him, who is kidnapped and decapitated to punish him because he sold cigarettes to military men. Like Mohamed, aka Bob John Lennon, “the unluckiest of us all because he had everything and lost everything,” who hasn’t gone to school but speaks French and English and manages to become a steward, faking his degrees before fate catches up with him. Like the old sewing lady the boys call “Precipice Radio” because she knows everything about everyone, and is no longer surprised by what the universe throws at The Precipice Estate.
Throughout his work, Aïssat searches for the origin of the all-submerging feeling that is displacement. In The Year of the Dogs, the narrator relives the events that have disconnected him from his environment and have later led him to seek exile outside his country. He daydreams about his relationship with his twin brother Salim, shot dead by a stray bullet, and with his mother, remembering all the animals that used to inhabit her portentous dreams.
Mothers, as the umbilical link that transfers both love and wounds, are cornerstone in the construction of Aïssat’s novels. In The Precipice Estate, Zohra, whose heart is “like an iron blade between the hands of a blacksmith. It overflowed,” silently reflects on her prayer mat about how powerless she feels in stopping the slow demise of her two sons. Similarly, in I Do As the Swimmer in the Sea, in which the narration of two main characters alternates, Sien, the beautiful single mother that DZ befriends, is pregnant and will bring up her son Habib alone.
Animals are a recurring element of the most pleasurable sort in Algerian fiction. In Tahar Wattar it was fish, in Rachid Boudjedra it is snails. In Assia Moussa Ali’s short stories, rodents inhabit the imagination of her characters. In Aïssat, it is spiders. In I Do As the Swimmer in the Sea, DZ adopts a money spider, makes her a little casing and brings her dead flies on which to feed. Aïssat opens this French metaphor for “the unhinged,” unfolds it, lays it out and turns it into a place from which to contemplate fighting away madness.
All these characters observe themselves through others, their point of observation is a mirror in front of and behind which they sit. This effect is explicit in I Do As the Swimmer in the Sea, which opens with a narrator announcing he is the ink for the voice of DZ, a character into which he projects himself and who will narrate the events that led him to burning his visa and passport and move to the Sonacotra estate outside Paris. A burning of bridges to attest that except memory and blood, no physical connection now remains.
Fershily rani sakran (Spread my bed, I am drunk – Cheb Khaled)
Not one of Aïssat’s novels is bitter or frontal. They are melancholic, and Aïssat is often humourous too, recognizing with good grace that exile, like fate, laughs at us all. It is music that appeases his characters, particularly the mandole of the grand master of Chaabi music, El Hadj M’hamed El Anka, and his touchiya after which the first chapter of The Precipice Estate is named. Aïssat was working on a volume on El Anka before he died. Perhaps one day, that volume will be published posthumously.
Cheb Khaled is often heard among the pages too. In I Do As the Swimmer in the Sea, before leaving for Latin America, CK, who is forever leaving to “seek a meaning to what he feels is disconnecting inside of him,” gives DZ all his tapes of classic tango.
The cleansing effect of urine
One of the most striking element in Aïssat’s work is his portrayal of the soothing and cleansing effect of urine. Boualem, in The Precipice Estate, and DZ, in I Do As the Swimmer in the Sea, are two adults on the verge of being broken. Both are about to take a crucial step. Their decision is made after a night of tempestuous dreams. Boualem relives the torture he endured during his four day incarceration by the military men looking for his brother. DZ is locked in a dream made of fear and a repressed memory of loss he can’t escape.
Both adult men wake up having urinated on themselves during their sleep. DZ consciously urinates in his bed in between dreams. But they are not ashamed or embarrassed; rather, they are surprised and relieved physically and emotionally. Urinating in their bed and on their own skin has comforted and calmed them. It has brought them closer to having found a point of re-entry into a safe place, childhood, where the slate was clean, the womb from which everything was once possible. This point of entry is also a point of exit from pain. Both will take a momentous step after this episode.
I have not yet stumbled upon another Algerian writer in French who has incorporated urine in any manner into his work, but in Arabic, as far as body fluids go, Said Khatibi’s main character Kahina, in his tragicomic The Book of Faults (Kitab el khataya), doesn’t shy away from describing the comical situations menstrual blood, tampons, and abortion has led her into.
Algerian fiction is better known, in Algeria and beyond, for its narratives of tragedies directly related to war, through which seeps the undiluted memory of ruthless violence. Underground, however, a magnificent layer lies, one that is deeply connected to an ancestral oral literary tradition, to its animals, its magic realism and delicious wit. This connection, present in many contemporary works of fiction, is reshaping their exploration of the seat of all our emotions, tessa*.
*Tessa is the liver in Kabyle, the language of the Berbers of the north of Algeria.
Nadia is ArabLit’s Algeria Editor and 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 tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.