Habib al-Sayah: Cracking ‘the Shell of the Taboo Around Talking about Algerian Jews’

Algerian novelist Habib al-Sayah was recently longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Me and Haim. A review of the novel — which follows two Algerians, the Jewish pharmacist Haim bin Maymun and the Muslim philosophy teacher Arsalan Hanafi, who grew up together and both struggled against French Occupation — is forthcoming.

Ahead of that, al-Sayah and ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey had a short dialogue over email about the impetus behind the novel, the research that went into it, the problems facing Algerian literature and publishing, and more:

What made you decide to build Me and Haim around Muslims and Jews who live together under French colonial Occupation?

Habib al-Sayah: It was my hope that, by exploring the relationship between Algerians, one Muslim and the other Jewish, I would crack the shell of the taboo around talking about Algerian Jews, who have lived in the country for more than twenty centuries, a population joined by those immigrants who fled the Spanish Inquisition. For them, Algeria was a land of peace and safety.

My decision to write about that relationship was based in my conviction that Algerian Jews were an integral part of social, historical, and cultural elements; they spoke the same languages (Algerian, in Arabic or Amazigh dialects). They wore the same traditional clothing. They prepared the same foods. And they shared what was made. They played the same music. They sang the same songs. Only the two religions were different.

And more than anything else above was the involvement of many Algerian Jews in the War of Liberation alongside their Muslim neighbors; the French Occupation authorities executed some and killed or drove away others. The novel Me and Haim, among other things, bears witness and memorializes the centuries-long coexistence of Algerian Muslims and Jews, which held until the Occupation, which brought about the first crack with the Crémieux Law (1870).

Why, in the past decade, have more novels been appearing about Arab Jews?

HS: To be honest, I don’t have exact data on this topic. But, as I’ve read some of these narratives, I can suggest that it’s related to the attempt to dig into what caused the tears that appeared in the social fabric of Arab societies after WWII and the 1948 War. Then, later, the Palestinian issue became one of the most important driving factors, I think, in asking questions about the times of aborted coexistence.

The novel Me and Haim doesn’t shy from asking this painful question: What would Algeria be like today had there not been a rift, and the Europeans and the pieds-noirs and Jews had accepted the authority of the new state after independence?

Do you have Jewish neighbors?

HS: Today, I don’t have Jewish neighbors. But, as a child, I saw some Jewish people in the town of Saida, before they disappeared at the beginning of independence. At the time, I didn’t distinguish between them and other natives: My memory still preserves what I’d heard about the very good relations between these neighbors (Muslims and Jews). I still recognize today the houses in the city where Jewish families lived. To this day, I still pass by the Jewish cemetery in the city’s southern suburbs. And when the old people are drawn back into stories about their Jewish neighbors, they’ll tell you their names and the streets they lived on; and some of those elders (or their grandchildren) still live in these old houses in the city.

Did you do historical research for the novel?

HS: A narrative such as Me and Haim requires significant effort in terms of imagining the relationship between Haim (the Jew) and Arsalan (the Muslim); a historical relationship centered on humanity and motivated by questions of identity and coexistence. Given the subject’s sensitivity, which does not leave room for any error, I had to make a great effort to compile and study historical material, and to ask questions, such that they could be embedded in the larger context of the imaginary.

It’s possible to say that the historical issue, when it comes to the text, is the intellectual justification for its reading, as we do not write a novel except to open a discussion. I believe that this dialogue, which is a footnote to the narrative, is part of the debate.

Who are your favorite novelists? Which are your best-loved novels?

HS: Like the rest of my generation, in the stage that followed adolescence, which had its own passionate for reading and adventure, I read French literature. There was Victor Hugo, with his most important work, Les Miserables. The classics of Russian literature. Dostoevsky in particular, with his Crime and Punishment. Later, Gorky’s Mother was more important in leaving a mark on my imagination. The Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. And Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. And Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. And Naguib Mahfouz—most of his work. Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North and Mohammad Dib’s first trilogy. Abdelhamid ben Hadouga’s The South Wind and Tahir Wattar’s The Ace. With time, the list would include other novelists who had an influence: especially Garcia Marquez, for his The Autumn of the Patriarch. Asturias’s Strong Wind.

As I recall these writers, it is often not the subjects of their works that compelled me, but the techniques they used to craft their texts. Personally, as I read a novel, it is too often to take advantage of the novelist’s experience.

My best-loved novels, among those I have written, are That Longing, Death in Oran, and Me and Haim; never before, from among my novels, had I been prepared to read it more than once, as I did after this was published.

Can you talk about the importance of Dar Mim to Algerian writers and Algerian literature?

HS: I dealt with Dar Mim, in partnership with Masciliana Editions, to publish Me and Haim, as part of the line of what is purely literary (novels, short stories, poetry, criticism) just like Masciliana. It was a very conscious choice, to contribute to galvanizing the literary movement in the Arab world, despite the fact that it causes, in the world of publishing, adventures and problems. Dar Mim is today considered the most important publishing house in Algeria, which publishes literary texts of high value in high-quality volumes. In today’s publishing arena, it’s an important source of Algerian literature and a magnet for many of Algeria’s literary talents. I salute its efforts, both Dar Mim and Masciliana, in bringing out Me and Haim in its two beautiful editions.

What are the biggest problems facing Algerian literature and Arabic literature? What are their biggest advantages?

HS: Perhaps at the forefront of its various problems comes that of distribution across the Arab world, thanks both to obstacles with Customs and with the difficulty of transporting texts from one Arab country to another, except during the international book exhibitions, which, unfortunately, are severely censored in many cases, even sometimes censoring books from the organizing country. What’s more, the problems of copyright should not be forgotten—it’s a widespread phenomenon that effects respectable publishing.

In Algeria, the main problem is printing, which has not yet reached a professional level. Then distribution—inside and outside the country. And both Arabic and Algerian literatures face the issue of readership, and we need to envision new ways to stimulate it across the region.

The advantages are, of course, those international exhibitions which, despite their shortcomings, are the most important events for the promotion and marketing of books. The conferences and specialized seminars that deal with Arabic literature, and particularly with the novel.

It is undeniable that the prizes in Arab countries contribute to the creation and sustenance of a literary movement, in terms of the number of texts participating in this award, even if, as evidenced by readings, some of these texts needed time to mature. It may be inevitable in such a quantity that you can find some high-quality novels.

Interview translated by M Lynx Qualey. All mistakes, etc.

Also read: 2019 IPAF Longlist Features ‘Strong, Female-led Narratives’

The next dialogue in this series is forthcoming Monday, January 21. It’s with Eritrean novelist Haji Jaber, longlisted for his Black Foam.