Said Khatibi on the Entanglements of Story in Bosnia and Algeria

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction’s (IPAF) 2020 longlist was announced last month, and Said Khatibi’s third novel Firewood of Sarajevo, was among the 16 titles selected:

Khatibi’s first novel, The Book of Faults (kitab al-khataya), was published in 2013. After that, he brought out a travel journal, The Gardens of the East Afflamed (jana’in al-sharq al-multahiba) in 2015. Khatibi has also translated, to Arabic, a collection of poetry by Kateb Yacine titled Far from Nedjma (Ba’idan ‘an Nedjma). Khatibi can be read in Spanish, as his second novel Forty Years Waiting for Isabel, was translated by Noemi Fierro Bandera (Baile del Sol editions, 2018). His work is also available in French; a short story appears in the volume Miniscule Histories of the Arab Revolutions (Histoires minuscules des révolutions arabes, 2012) edited by Wassyla Tamzali.

What are the pluses & minuses of being longlisted by the IPAF?

Said Khatibi: The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is one of the highest literary awards for Arabic. It also functions as a bridge for the Arabic novel and countries abroad. It is a window from which the West looks at contemporary Arabic literature. It is an award that crosses geographical borders. I am very happy that my novel Firewood of Sarajevo has been nominated.

This award is an important annual event from the time the longlist is announced to when discussions and reviews start flowing, and this is the function of literature. Its function is not to create consensus but to raise questions, to excite, to produce controversies and provoke opinions. This is the democratic essence of literature, it brings together disputing voices, and an award should succeed in creating this democratic atmosphere, in sparkling literary discussions. Every year it provides a space for dialogue between readers who are close and far away. Making the longlist is a success in itself, it puts the spotlight on a novel, alerts the reader to it, and that is what a writer hopes, to reach the widest readership possible. On the other hand, the nomination of a novel can place strain on the writer, it can bind a writer to presenting only his or her “best.” So as not to get trapped by the nomination of one successful novel, he or she will feel the need to go beyond and above in an upcoming work.

You were young during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. Do you remember hearing about it at the time? I understand that, in 2012, you discovered in Sarajevo a list of Algerian dead. What were you doing at the time? What connections did you make with this list? How (and why) did you decide to follow up on this research? 

Said Khatibi: Firewood of Sarajevo is not a chronology of two wars that erupted in the 1990s in Algeria and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but rather it is the story of human paths, of individuals who survive the lines of fire. The side of research that interested me was psychology to portray characters in all their fragility, to humanize characters, their patience, and endurance, and to link threads between the stories that intersect in the novel. The novel wonders how we arrived at years of bloodshed. They cover more than half a century in the history of both countries beginning from World War II up to contemporary times.

When the war began in Sarajevo I was a child. I was in southern Algeria then. We sang songs in school about the children of Sarajevo, and we saw pictures of what was happening there on TV. At the same time, death was hovering over all of us in Algeria, and like thousands of Algerians mine was among the families of the victims. I lived through that time with my body and memory; I saw death beside me. We were children in the nineties in Algeria, and I remember a question that was always coming up between us: “Do you want to die from a bullet or from a knife wound?” As if we were certain death was coming to us. Are we fortunate to have escaped these atrocities?

Then the years went by, and I arrived in Sarajevo for the first time seven years ago, with the purpose of writing about a trip to the Balkans (it is published under the title The Gardens of the East Afflamed), and I learned that children there had asked themselves similar questions during their childhood. At that time, I was not intending on writing a novel, a part of which would take place in Sarajevo. The idea grew with time, after I learnt the language, and after having had access to an important archive in the history of the city and the country in general, and being struck by how similar the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina was to the history of Algeria! As I leafed through the archives of cultural institutions and museums I found lists of victims and their names, and I was surprised that there were Algerians among them. Let’s not forget that there is a shared socialist history between Algeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose link was cut off after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. There are families that come from joint marriages between Algerians and Bosnians, and some of them preferred to stay and live in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I did not intend to write a novel about war, but rather about ordinary people who are not heroes and are not victims, during and after the war. What matters more to me is to write stories, to share with the reader the pleasure of the text, to write about love, fear, joy, imprisonment, hope, patience, ecstasy, and sorrow while a city collapses all around and bullets glimmer.

About al-Hajj Brahim, who has Alzheimer’s… Of course no character is merely a symbol, but does his loss of memory reflect a loss of cultural memory?

Said Khatibi: The one thing we collectively remember in Algeria is how to forget. This systematic forgetfulness has led us to miss historic opportunities. We are used to forgetting and repeating mistakes. Nothing prevents the nineties from being repeated. Today we see that fundamentalism and extremism have returned, and we seem to have forgotten the tragedies they caused in a not-so-faraway past. Haj Ibrahim is a witness to history’s misstep, to the way the war of liberation slipped up, and to what followed, but he is like those from his generation who insist on repeating past events, who are bent on forgetting the past and returning to the same lapses, and this is the common condition of an entire generation, I mean the generation of the liberation war. It is they who practice this forgetting, who tolerate it and burden others with old mistakes, unrepentant of their repetition.

This insistence on forgetting in Algeria also makes us more of an oral society rather than a society founded on the written word. We believe in what tongues utter and not what is written in books. Little by little, Algerians have come to believe in myths more than in reality.

Why is music so important to the characters? How can music function in a novel where we cannot necessarily hear it, or where different readers will hear differently?

Said Khatibi: During the wars that Bosnia and Herzegovina and Algeria experienced, people disagreed about everything, in the way they ate and dressed, in the naming of places, but the only thing they did not disagree on was the music they listened to, the musical titles and names mentioned in the novel are those that the people who would quarrel listened to and did not disagree about.

Music in a literary text is similar to the surface of the skin, it is a crucial piece with which to understand the sensitivity of characters, in capturing their feelings and understanding their psychological states. Music is a point of entry into what makes us grasp their happiness or depression. Music in a novel leads us to understand what the emotions and sensations the character is going through. But is silence also not music? While I was about to finish writing Firewood of Sarajevo, I happened to meet — over three years ago now — women who were victims of the nineties in the city of Blida, a city located near Algiers, as part of an academic project, the aim of which was to write the stories of survivors.

I spent many hours with them, I recorded their testimonies, then I noticed something: they tend to be more silent than talkative. I noticed the same occurrence after meeting some of the families of the victims of the conflict in Sarajevo. It was a kind of loud silence, not silence as we know it. I realized that a survivor’s silence said more than what was spoken sometimes. The musicality of the text can also be its moments of silence and reflection.

What sort of research did you do to create the character of Ivana? How is it different to create a character from a different national and cultural heritage? How do you think a Bosnian or a Slovenian would react to her character? (Did you talk to some in your editing/creative process?)

Said Khatibi: As I mentioned earlier, I arrived in Sarajevo for the first time, years ago, for a book project about a trip to the Balkans. Travel writing is primarily an individual experience for a writer. After that book was published, I contacted the late Juan Goytisolo to thank him for his book titled Sarajevo Notebook. It was originally a journalistic investigation into the days of the war. I benefited much from it when writing about my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among our back-and-forth discussions and replies, Goytisolo introduced me to his old friends there, among them a veteran journalist who worked for the Oslobođenje newspaper, a newspaper that was kept secret in the days of the siege of Sarajevo. And so, going from one person to the next, I got to open doors and to meet a society from inside.

The character of Ivana gradually formed in my imagination. Then it became necessary to point out that the differences between an Algerian and a Bosnian are slight by virtue of historical similarities and their tremors in both countries. Also the novel is a work of the imagination, but it is based on historical facts, and, as the reader may notice, Ivana remains a neutral character during and after the war. She lives her inner war and she is forced to bear what is happening outside of herself. What she cares about is theater–until she finally succeeds in writing the play Firewood of Sarajevo, and realizes that she has lived a fake life that matches the life Salim, her counterpart, lived. What interested me was the human dimension of the character of Ivana, her contradictions as well.

One chapter of the novel was translated into Slovenian, and it was read in a literary symposium, attended by — coincidentally — also Bosnians. I was surprised by the nature of the questions. The thing I noticed most was that they were interested in the views others far from them geographically had about what happened in their country. Their curiosity increased with the fact that an Algerian had written about what happened, without losing sight of a similar situation unfolding in Algeria. The nineties are a wound that has not yet healed, and it is still the subject of discussions that are likely to continue for decades.

Do you read Bosnian, Slovenian, or Croat literature? Is your literary work informed by those literary voices or forms?

Said Khatibi: There is the Serbo-Croatian group of languages. Speaking one is enough to travel around the former states of Yugoslavia without embarrassment. There is a language crisis similar to the one we know in Algeria, when someone might write in a language other his or her own mother tongue, just like the controversial conundrum one who writes in Arabic or French in Algeria might find himself or herself in. I read a lot, but what I like most about the Balkans is theater and cinema, and I can almost certainly say that I rediscovered these art forms in this specific geographical area.

What would your character, Salim, think about what’s going on in Algeria now? What would he be doing?

Said Khatibi: Salim, as mentioned in the novel, is almost fifteen years older than me. He was born after independence and lived the uprising of October 5, 1988, and almost lost his life in the nineties. He knows that people in Algeria seize what moments of life they can because they cannot find a way to live comfortably; they catch fleeting moments of life.

Salim lost everything, including his father, whose genealogy he learns about only after his death. He lost his faith in love, his desire to love, and generally, love has become the last thing an Algerian would think about. He realizes he has lived a life of deception, a life in suspention, a life of waiting, as if he was at a station waiting for a train that does not arrive. Yet he prefers returning to Algeria. He resurrects his life like a contemporary Sisyphus. If he had lived among us today, he would be fifty years old, and he would have taken to the streets to participate in the hirak, the popular movement, but he’d also be disgruntled with the forgetting of our history, and how we seem eager to repeat the very same mistakes.

This interview was translated from the Arabic by ArabLit’s Algeria and Morocco Editor, Nadia Ghanem.

Also read: ‘Firewood of Sarajevo’: Testimonies against Amnesia and for an Alternative History