Algerian novelist Said Khatibi’s Kitab al-khataya is not the story of Algeria’s black decade, or of Islamist fighters, or of star-crossed love. Instead, it’s a book that begins on a crowded bus with a tampon emergency:
By Nadia Ghanem
Anyone interested in an Algerian novel that has finally moved beyond the tropes of terrorism, Islamism and love-ism should read Said Khatibi’s Kitab al-khataya.
Algerian novelist Said Khatibi’s Kitab al-khataya* (كتاب الخطايا), or The Book of Faults, is the unabashed story of a young woman who reviews her dating life with a great sense of humor and of honesty, weighing the good and the bad of her situation as a working woman, a little uncertain as to where she should be heading in life.
Set in bustling Algiers and its suburbs, thirty-something Kahina is one of the many women and men who juggle work and dating, and who attempt to find a secure anchorage somewhere in an environment that is structurally changing and crumbling at a furious pace.
In this refreshing novel, Khatibi etches tender, empathetic, and non-judgemental portraits of individuals who are simply trying to find a little space to dream.
Kitab al-khataya is Kahina’s book of errors, a sort of account-keeping that retraces the narrator’s life from the moment she realises things aren’t really going anywhere, standing in a overcrowded bus with a Tampax emergency, to when she falls pregnant — not by her fiancé.
Kahina lives with her parents in Ain Naʿdja and works as a receptionist in downtown Algiers. Like most of the people she knows, her situation affords her relative financial independence, freedom of movement, and also looks like a static dead end.
While the men in her life often add another layer of stress to her daily experiences, they soothe some of the frustration and anguish she feels about the future. If betterment won’t come from work, it may be brought on by love or, at least, by marriage. By examining the story of her dates, Kahina attempts to pinpoint where she went wrong. Falling in awe of her best friend was delicious and precious. But abortion is a loud wakeup call.
By looking outwards and observing the people around her, such as her easy-going mother, her married sisters, her friends and the random encounters she makes around the city, Kahina creates her own self-therapy and opens a window onto a fiercely radiant and contemporary Algeria.
Kahina is the narrator throughout Kitab al-khataya, but the book opens and closes with a note: a man is writing down her story. These parts echo Kahina’s last remarks toward the end of the novel, when she writes a long letter and sends it to someone who will understand and know what to do with it.
The influence of oral transmission and of an oral storytelling tradition is highly present in novels with multiple tellers. Stories like multifaceted mirrors such as The Sand Child by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun published in 1985 are a great illustration of what we could perhaps refer to as its own genre. Several recent Algerian novels open in this manner. In Toy of Fire (دمية النار) by Bachir Mefti (2010), we learn of the protagonist’s story through a man who had met him at a party and was particularly struck by this character. Or in I Do As the Swimmer in the Sea (Je fais comme fait dans la mer le nageur) by Sadek Aissat (2004), a friend of the protagonist acts as his pen.
As for contemporary novels written by male authors who borrow the voice of a woman to weave a story, there are so many both in Arabic and in French that they might just show the tip of a trend seeking to extend Kateb Yacine’s classic novel Nedjma — in which Nedjma, the central character of the novel is silent — and to reconnect with the ancient cycle of El-Djazia.
Said Khatibi is a novelist and a journalist who writes both in Arabic and French. His latest novel أربعون عاما في إنتظار إيزابيل (Forty Years Waiting for Isabelle [Eberhardt]), came out this summer both in Algeria (El-Ikhtilef) and Lebanon (Difaf).
Kitab al-khataya (كتاب الخطايا) was published by ANEP editions in 2013.
*I choose to refer in English to this novel as The Book of Faults. Strictly speaking Khataya “خطايا” should be translated as “sins” (faults as in ‘errors’ would correspond to أخطاء) but I would like to get away from religious references and tags, especially as the story is not moralistic nor religion-focused. That is how I understood the story. Others will read it differently. Nonetheless, I’ll stick to the word “faults” because it is a synonym of “sins” in English, and because I read somewhere something that more or less said “confession of sins are made to God not to men, faults are confessed to one another.” But I am no Arabic/English translator so don’t quote me. “Wrongs” or “wrongdoings” as suggested by others might be a good option too. The author will be best placed to choose.
Nadia “no Arabic/English translator” Ghanem 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.