The Spartan Court by Algerian novelist Abdelouaheb Aissaoui is one of the 16 novels on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)’s 2020 longlist:
The IPAF shortlist is scheduled to be announced later today in Marrakesh.
By Nadia Ghanem
Abdelouaheb Aissaoui is the author of three novels and a short-story collection. His second novel, Sierra de la Muerte (The Mountain of Death) won the Assia Djebar prize in 2015 for best novel in the Arabic language. He was also one of the IPAF’s Nadwa workshop participants in 2016.
This interview was conducted in Arabic, translated by Nadia Ghanem.
First of all, congratulations on your nomination! Four novels by Algerian writers are on the IPAF’s longlist this year. Why do you think that is? Do you think it reflects the strength of the literary production of 2019, or perhaps the work of publishing houses who made a point of participating and sending their novels? Or is it a coincidence?
Abdelouaheb Aissaoui: Such news was long awaited; two [Algerian] novelists have previously been nominatedon the longlist, and one of them had made it to the shortlist. In my opinion, this has come about because of the texts which were strong this year. Also the focus on quality has increased, not only in terms of narrative quality, but also with regards to the quality of printing and of production methods. The Arabic Booker, as it is called, has formal conditions for the participating novel, and the initial stage is the reception of submitted texts. In this respect, I learned that some works had previously been rejected because of the poor printing quality of the book, or because of the many typos within the text. Now local publishers have the ability to compete outside Algeria on two levels, on the artistic and the production level. I am optimistic about the Arabic Booker this year. I hope it will be an Algerian win, especially since no Algerian has ever won it.
For you, what are the positive and negative aspects of an IPAF selection? You were awarded the Assia Djebar prize in 2015, what were the positive and negative aspects of such a prize? Was your participation to the IPAF’s Nadwa useful?
AA: The presence of four Algerian novels on the Arabic Booker Prize’s longlist shows that the Algerian text is still doing well, just as it indicates that the Algerian writer keeps on being invested in writing seriously. Those who follow the evolution the novel written in Arabic in Algeria are aware it suffered numerous interruptions. During the 1990s, we saw texts written on the tips of fingers. While in recent years, the writing of novels has flourished, the number of printed novels reached a record that hadn’t been seen since independence. We approached writing as an Algerian phenomenon, after being used to write in isolation.
The disadvantages I see in the Assia Djebar prize I won are mostly organizational. This prize does not polarize important names in its committee on a par with its literary and media prominence; this was especially the case the last two sessions. I wished that the award committee had made a long and a short list. But perhaps the most important disadvantage of the Assia Djebar Prize is that it does not follow the writer after her or his award, which could be for example the translating of the winning work into all the prize’s languages [Arabic, French, Tamazight], so that more readers could have access to them, nor does it organize activities that could support the writer: no seminars, no signings, or anything of that sort. In addition, the prize money was reduced this year.
Opposite this, I benefitted much from the workshop leaders of the 2016 Arabic Booker nadwa. This experience had a great impact on an artistic level; it clarified many points that had been absent from the artistic aspect of the story I was writing, teachers — in the end — made us gain a lot of time.
You set your novel The Spartan Court between 1815 and 1833, what attracted you to this period? In your reference to Sparta, do you perceive common points between ancient Sparta, Algiers in the 19th century, and the period we live presently?
AA: I think that the actual period that sees the beginning of Algeria’s decline starts in August 1816, which is the time of Lord Exmouth’s campaign against Algeria, but I shifted the year to 1815, the year in which the famous Battle of Waterloo occurred, when Napoleon was defeated. This was the beginning of the transformation of one of the characters in the novel. As for the year 1833, it is the year during which the African Commission visited Algeria; at that time, a new “birth certificate” was issued for it, giving it the name of African properties in Algeria.
Sparta was ruled by a military mentality, and from the point of view of one of the personalities of the novel, Algeria was like Sparta, as most of its wealth was gathered by collecting taxes imposed on ships passing through the Mediterranean, and it is a form of piracy as well. Maybe the subject of the story is best described as the formation of states and its process, there can be no state based on a military regime alone. Perhaps this is what we have been witnessing in all Arab countries. After the military inherited states from former colonial powers, they refused to hand them over to the civil authorities that make modern systems. The end of Ottoman Algeria is similar to the end of Sparta, and after more than two hundred years we see that the same thing taking shape with the fall of many Arab countries in a similar way: Iraq, Libya, etc.
What type of research did you conduct to bring this period to life in your novel? What did you read or visited to plunge into that time? Which sources did you find most interesting?
AA: I researched about seventy titles: historical books by well-known historians such as: Saad Allah, Nasr al-Din Sa`idouni, and Abdul Jalil al-Tamimi. I also read some travel literature such as: Hebenstreit, Algerian travels like the voyages of Abu Ra’s al-Nasiri, imagined maps of the city of Algiers drawn by Nasser al-Din Sa`idouni, memoirs by Algerian writers such as Sharif Zahar, who lived through the period and Ahmed Efendi, as well as foreigners such as the American Consul, William Schaller, and military reports or impressions, such as those written by Pichon, or Bellissi’s Algerian annals, and even some religious books, with others related to endowments, like the Habous manuscript of the Great Mosque that Al-Tamimi edited, and the manuscript of the Law of Markets in Algeria during the period of the Ottomans edited by Saidouni. I made myself a summary of all these books then wrote speech notes for each character that would correspond to their way of thinking and their daily concerns.
I visited the city of Algiers several times, but I had difficulty in identifying old areas and streets, because the Algiers of 1830 is not today’s Algiers, and many of the changes that took place in the capital were a result of colonization, like the demolition of many mosques and palaces witness to the Ottoman period, in addition to the disappearance of many of the old quarters such as Al-Mayaran and Sallawiyin, and street cafes, and so I therefore used imagination as an artistic tool with which to rebuild these lost places.
You composed The Spartan Court as a polyphonic novel in which five characters are present – the rebel Hamma Sallaoui, Doudja a prostitute, Dupontthe journalist, Caviar the military man, and the notable Ibn Mayar. Which of them were the most difficult to imagine or to reconstruct? To which character did you feel closest?
AA: The two European characters, Caviar and Dupont, they were easier because they are two types of characters whose personalities could be outlined from books. Ibn Mayar comes second in degree of difficulty, because he is the last that is made of a large chunk of a living character, but the two most difficult characters, the ones that required the most imaginative fire, were Sallaoui and Doudja. With regard to Sallaoui, there was not much information to be gleaned except for what the German natural scientist Moritz Wagner wrote on his trip to Algeria about a young man and puppeteer who would put on shows representing scenes where the Arab [puppet] would hit the French one. He mixed his Arabic with French, and all this led the French authorities to put a stop to the shows. As for Doudja, it was all pure imagination, but there I benefitted much from reading about the social realities in the capital during that period. The closest character to myself are Doudja and Hamma Sallaoui.
The Spartan Court, as your previous novel Sierra de Muerte, are historical novels, do you think that a novelist should respect the historical facts from which he draws inspiration? Or is it ok to reinvent facts and history? Does your profession (in engineering) influence you to be exact in your historical fiction?
AA: The separation between real and imagined in the historical novel is a complex and entangled issue. Many critics have discussed it, but in my view the writing of a novel is not history and therefore the novelist must be free to write, at least to the extent that the general idea of the historical event does not change, especially if the genre is historical realism, not fantasy. But if a novelist writes about a real character reconstructing a life, then it will be more difficult, as the circle very much narrows to factual data. It is possible to use one’s imagination but within the ideological space of the character, without departing from it. Meaning that a character may act, and we accept the character’s view of life, even though the writer does not abide by it.
Of course, academic study (engineering) is helpful for the novelist; it helps with organizing a vision of the novel in general. Mathematics are especially helpful, because there is a logic that guides the novel as events are based on causality. Engineering opens an important space for imagining a narrative space in all its multiple dimensions. One day, the great novelist Rachid Boujedra spoke of the importance of mathematics to a novelist, but he was mocked. Those who did did not realize at the time that the philosopher Gilles Deleuze had referred to the same idea in writing what is philosophy in his essay on the conceptual character.
What would Doudja think of the hirak ? Would she go out to demonstrate? Which character would refuse to participate to this popular movement?
AA: As in the novel, where Doudja wanted to join Sallaoui in heading to the front in Sidi Frejd, she would be the first to come out with the hirak, as long as the change wished for in Algeria had no dark motive, while Sallaoui would be the beating heart of the hirak. He would come out, even alone. He would be true to the personality of the Algerian man or woman, who refuses any authority from anyone, except from that which preserves rights and citizenship.
The character who would be conservative or perhaps have a different view of the movement would be Ibn Mayar. I imagine he would be the first to seek dialogue, and strive to propose a middle ground, which, of course, Hamamad Sallaoui would not find satisfactory because of his radical views.
Do you have your manuscripts read by friends, relatives, or by other novelists? Do other novelists send you their manuscripts to read?
AA: Typically after writing each novel, two friends of mine see it, two teachers of the Arabic language, who re-read the text one after the other, in order to correct issues of language I have missed. Then only one novelist friend reads it, the same one whose work I usually read before publication. But with this last novel, I followed another course. The manuscript was handed over to an ordinary reader in order for them to tell me about the ideas and events that may appear obscure, or that did not convince the reader; then the novel was read by my two teacher friends, and then by other friends with a multicultural background.
What are the difficulties that writers from Djelfa or from other wilayas encounter to publish in Algeria and abroad? What would be your suggestions to improve the situation?
AA: The problems encountered by writers in Djelfa are the same as those encountered across Algeria. All of Algeria has been reduced to the capital, the important libraries are there, as well as the publishing houses, and other cultural platforms, all in the capital; even the works from these publishing houses are not distributed well within Algeria. Whoever wants a book does not wait for it to appear in libraries, he or she goes to the publishing house himself or herself, or waits for Algiers’ International Book Fair. The Book Fair has changed from an interactive place where we would meet writers and keep up with activities around the written word through various events into a large book market.
As for the problem of books printed outside Algeria, it comes from the reception of copies only. We have to wait for publishing houses to come the Algiers International Book Fair (if they attend), because the law of importing and supplying books is a problem in Algeria. In addition, the Algerian State sees the book as any other consumer goods that can be taxed. There are no serious plans for the promotion and marketing of our culture or of our books outside of Algeria. A few days ago, I attended the Kuwait Book Fair, and saw that all Arab countries were there, represented by more than one publisher, except Algeria, and this is because of backward laws.
I cannot give suggestions for improvement, because the issue needs serious government action to takeappropriate action with laws to regulate books, publishing houses and supply. Even with regards to banks, the situation is very backwardin Algeria, there must be a project that has a cultural and national basis, removed from formalor temporary measures.
What were the last five books (fiction or non-fiction) that you liked recently?
AA: The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, The War at the End of the World, Death in the Andes, all by Vargas Llosa. Pedro Páramo (my second reading) by Juan Rolvo. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago.
Which Algerian women novelist do you read and which of their novel(s) would you recommend?
AA: Assia Djebar’s Nowhere in my father’s house; Yamina Mechakra’s The Exploding Cave; Ahlam Mosteghanemi’s Memory of the Flesh; Samia Bin Driss’s The Tree of Mary; Munjia Ibrahim’s He hides a poem in his pocket; Djamila Talabawi’s The Valley of Henna. The list is long!
Dr. Nadia Ghanem is ArabLit’s Algeria and Morocco Editor. She is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow attached to the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, where she works on a project translating divination texts from ancient Iraq, written in the Akkadian language. She also blogs at tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk about Algerian literature.