Algerian-Belgian Novelist and Screenwriter Malika Madi and Writing as Intervention

The Belgian Embassy in Kuwait invited Algerian-Belgian writer Malika Madi to Kuwait to celebrate the Francophone Days. Her talk was titled “Author, woman, Belgo-Algerian citizen, the paths of a woman with multiple belongings,” and she spoke about her “issues”-focused writing and filmmaking:

By Vittoria Volgare

Photo credit: Vittoria Volgare.

Kuwait City – “I often write about women, because we can only talk about what we know best. In doing that I also try to denounce injustices.” This, in her own words, is what Algerian Belgian author Malika Madi has undertaken since she started writing in French more than 20 years ago. She brings to the project her perspective as a woman with multiple identities: European, Algerian, and Berber.

Malika Madi was born in Wallonia in the late 1960s. Her parents left Kabilya after the independence of ‘62 to go work in the mines of Belgium, like many other immigrants of the same period, particularly those from Morocco, Italy, and Turkey. As a second-generation woman, she struggled to find an equilibrium between her Belgian and Algerian identities while her family had emigrated with the idea of returning one day, so integration was not really a priority.

Yet Madi’s uprooting had the opposite effect: She was part of an integrated second generation. Literature moved her to integrate even more, and today her books are part of the heritage of the Belgian Francophone literature: “As a child of analphabet parents, I had the impression that art and literature were reserved for wealthy people. I was fascinated by this world. But I did not want to write just to publish something. I needed my books to be useful to people, to provoke an exchange of views.” So her writing is often issues-based: identity, religion, immigration, family, and violence.

The First Novel: Farah’s Dark Night

Malika is not only a novelist, but a screen writer, essayist, and speaker.

Since 1999, she has worked in schools and associations all over Belgium in order to raise awareness on issues around cultural diversity and immigration. She had written short stories, but Madi launched her fiction career with her first novel Farah’s Dark Night (Editions du Cerisier, 2000), which tackles forced marriages, double identity, and marginality. The book won the Best First Work of the French Community in Belgium and today is widely read and discussed in schools all over the country.

Farah’s Dark Night is the story of the titular Farah, a young girl of Algerian origin living in Belgium with her family. If her two older sisters, Latifa and Lila, are brought up by her conservative parents to marry an Algerian and become good wives, Farah is allowed to study and cultivate her passion: reading. Her dream is to go to university and study literature, but it will never come true because her sisters decide to escape, and Farah is therefore forced to marry Latifa’s husband-to-be. She will move to Algeria with him, abandoning her studies, and will get used to her role of wife and housewife. But what troubles her most, after several years of marriage, is the betrayal of her sisters. The book was inspired by a true story, Malika says. Very present in this novel is the doubled identity: Farah and her sisters must navigate the two cultures, the parents’ Algerian traditions and the pressures of the Belgian society.

Between motherhood and brutality

Victims of rape during Algeria’s 1990s civil war are the main characters of Madi’s second novel, The Silences of Medea (Espace Nord, 2003). It is the story of Zohra, a young observant Muslim who lives and works as teacher in the Algerian city of Medea during the conflict between Islamists and the army. One day, she is kidnapped and raped. When she returns home, shocked and ashamed, she refuses to talk about what really happened to her. During those dark 10 years of conflict thousands of women were kidnapped, sexually abused, and sometimes killed. Like Zohra, many other survivors decided to stay silent.

Madi has also written two other novels, among them an erotic work called Chamsa, Daughter of the Sun (Editions du Cygne). Her last work, the essay “Maternity and Literature, Creation and Procreation, was published last month. It’s about the complexity of being mother and at the same time writer. Can the two coexist? What do we transmit to our children? Our ancestors’ values, or are they perhaps not applicable anymore to the modern times we live in?

Nowadays, Madi is writing a documentary about the link that binds mothers to daughters in the context of migration. She begins from her own story, as a woman born in Belgium to a Muslim family of Algerian origin, raised in the post-‘68 era. In that period, the biggest challenge for women like her was to be part of the host country and be considered Belgians. Today, she says, the younger generations are often drawn to Islam and want to revindicate their identities. What provoked this shift and what will be the consequences? The documentary addresses these questions by analyzing the lives of three generations: Malika Madi, her mother, and her daughter.

Vittoria Volgare is an Italian journalist and translator.  After having studied Arabic at the University of Napoli “L’Orientale”, she collaborated with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and for the Italian Press Agency ANSA. Since 2005, she lives in the Arab world (Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, Tripoli and now Kuwait).