The Algerian publishing house Dalimen Editions is a leading publisher of comix and illustrated works for readers of all ages. Its founder, Dalila Nedjem, talks about the challenges and opportunities of graphic works:
By Nadia Ghanem
Dalimen Editions were founded in Algeria by Dalila Nedjem in 2001. Initially, Dalimen’s focus was arts and cultural heritage, but when Nedjem became the commissioner of Algiers’ International Festival of Comic Books (FIBDA) upon the festival’s launch in 2008, she amended her editorial line to include comic books and graphic novels. To talk about Dalimen’s passion for the illustrated word, Dalila Nedjem has kindly answered a few questions below, to be read along the following frame.
Publishers dedicated to promoting local illustrators and graphic storytellers in Algeria are few. The genre has in fact experienced a bumpy road since the 90s, when celebrated cartoonists like Brahim Guerroui (called Gébé), Mohamed Dorbane, and Saïd Mekbel, were assassinated. Previously, comic books had enjoyed their very own spot within the Algerian literary landscape.
The history of Algerian comic books can be traced pre-independence, though few artefacts remain. The cartoons of Ismael Aït Djafer in the colonial press of the 50s are evidence that Algerian artists were already engaging with this art form, producing cartoons and illustrating stories, despite colonization’s constraints.
Predictably, it is post-independence that Algerian comix began to pop out of pages with cartoonists’ serialized strips appearing in national newspapers, illustrating news items or narrating an original story. The printed press became a launchpad for a number of cartoonists, such as Mohamed Aram, known as “the father of Algerian comic books,” Ahmed Haroun, Rachid Aït Kaci, Maz, and Slim, to name only a few. They, with several others, went on to become the founders of the cult classic magazines M’quidesh, El Manchar, and Bendir, founded in 1969, 1990, and 2009 respectively. It is these artists who also opened the way to the making of comic books, with albums that gathered cartoon strips scattered in several places, under the paper wing of a single volume, or by producing new stories and characters.
Post-90s, comic books were in demand again, and they remain so—as the FIBDA makes clear—but there were still obstacles, undoubtedly multiple. One issue that looms large is space, though not the physical. Much of the freedom of expression that had been gained in the late 80s, and which boosted comic books at that time, was not regained post 90s, nor during Bouteflika’s era, and not now, at least not yet, as can be seen from the latest frantic series of imprisonments.
The treatment of cartoonist Amine Benabdelhamid, known as “Nime,” is one example among a multitude of arbitrary arrests. Nime was sentenced in December 2019 to a one-year jail term, with three months effective, because of a caricature depicting (with admirable prescience and days before the event) the person who would become Algeria’s president post-Bouteflika. Nime was kept in jail for one month and was released early on January 2, 2020, although his sentence has not been annulled.
The world of comix extends far beyond political cartoons, of course, but when you add to the mix the cost of production and the migraines of distribution, the promotion of the genre—such as that being weightlifted by Nedjem—becomes remarkable.
Nadia Ghanem: I first came to know Dalimen through your comic books Waratha (collective) and Fatma n’Parapli, by Soumeya and Safia Ouarezki, and Mohammed Benameur. It is then that I realized few editors promote Algerian comix. How did the idea of specializing in comic books come about? With which comic book did Dalimen editions begin their adventure?
Dalila Nedjem: The idea of integrating comic books in our catalogue came naturally after the creation of Algiers’ Festival International de la Bande Dessinée [Algiers’ International Festival of Comic Books]. At that point, the majority of Algerian talents had stopped publishing during the “dark decade.” The FIBDA enabled the ninth art to be reborn, public demand was growing. We began our adventure with the publication of the collective album Monstres, which is marvellous and was born out of a workshop. Other publishing houses felt cautious about such works, so we took it on and that is how we began to develop this editorial line.
NG: Since the creation of Dalimen, you have published comix and graphic novels, children’s and YA books, coffee-table books on local traditions like tapestry art in the south of Algeria with Tigurarin by Marie Claire Radigue, anthologies like The Little Dictionary of Algerian Theatre by Achour Cheurfi, and Les contes du terroir algérien [Algerian Folktales] by Zoubeida Mameria, one of my favourite of your productions, also essays and biographies. But you then announced a reduction in your production in part because of the financial difficulties that Dalimen was encountering. How are things today in 2020 for Dalimen?
DN: I do not seem to remember “wanting” to change our editorial line (laughter), but for sure we have known a crisis for a while, though it is not specific to the publishing world but extends to all sectors, and it is not only on a local level but worldwide. In 2020, without wanting to draw a depressing picture of the publishing world in Algeria, I would say that things are far from great! Public procurement is very important for the survival of our sector, so we very much hope that this new government will reorganise and reshape the sector. Did they not say they would be the government of reforms…? Wait and see, as they say.
NG: You came to Algeria in 1984 with the aim of opening a publishing house that would especially focus on getting Algerian cultural heritage better known, and this is what you did when you created Dalimen in 2001. Your first collection was on cultural heritage, then Algerian cities and painters. Later on, you began a children’s collection. How are children’s books and YA doing at present?
DN: I had been living in Algeria for a few years. I fell in love with the country, but I was working in a completely different sector, and I was not planning on opening a publishing house though I always dreamt of being a bookseller. During my professional re-training, after the economy opened, I first went into the communications industry in 1997, my initial trade. It is in 2001 that I went into publishing. It was already a part of what I was doing in communications. I began by publishing Said Mekbel’s newspaper pieces, and children books. It seemed to me quite natural to follow an editorial line that would focus on Algerian cultural heritage, which is so rich and very much unknown by the greater public, especially internationally. The specificity of our publishing house is exactly this link to Algerian cultural heritage, it is the recurrent theme of all our books, whether they be novel, coffee table books, comix, children’s books, and YA.
NG: We know that printing books is difficult for publishing houses in Algeria. The price of paper is high, there are not many printers, and I imagine that to produce books that need colors and quality photos is even more of a challenge. What were the difficulties you encountered to produce your comix and coffee table books?
DN: You say it well, paper is costly. Printers are not so rare; we have to get rid of this image we have of them. Algerian printers have state-of-the-art machines and equipment, and they are capable of realizing beautiful books. The only constraint we encounter unfortunately is the cost of paper, and its quality also. The break on imports impacted every sector, including publishing. The second difficulty, for me, is the absence of a continuous production. We have a young generation full of talent, but they usually satisfy themselves with producing a single volume, with not much conviction to carry on.
NG: Which change(s) would enable you to work better and promote your books more easily?
DN: Dalimen Editions really want to widen comic books’ readership. We want to strip away this image of comix as books for children. We have albums aimed at young readers, of course, but we have others for adults because comic books speak to everyone and are accessible to all. A few years ago, we produced an album on the Emir Abdelkader that we wanted to make available in schools. Our aim was to make history classes, often dull, more playful. This is a new learning method that has worked very well in “developed” countries, why should we not introduce it here?
NG: While reading your comic books and graphic novels, I noticed that many are drawn and written by women; I’m especially thinking of Nawel Louerrad, Safia and Soumia Ouarezki, and Rim Laredj. Which works by women you have preferred over the years? Which themes treated by women have marked you the most?
DN: I have no preference with respect to our books; each treats of its own subject and has its own codes. It is a fact that in Algeria we have many women comic-book artists but I do not want to associate or give more attention to a book because a woman is its author. I believe that women are the equal of men and that any work accomplished by a man can be done by a woman and vice versa. To answer your second question, I think that the themes that marked us most were those treated in Monsters, where young people were able to express themselves, notably on incest, rape, and the trauma of the dark decade.
NG: You have been FIBDA’s commissioner since its onset—how are Algerian comic books and their artwork perceived by foreign publishers who come to present their own in Algeria? Do they leave with graphic novels and comix made in Algeria to distribute them abroad? Are you able to get your books distributed abroad?
DN: We are lucky to have a beautiful local production. In 12 years, the comic books industry and its by-products have considerably developed. Algerian comic books today have acquired some worldwide recognition. Foreigners are often surprised by the subjects treated and especially by the manner in which they are drawn. They often find these works pertinent and even bold. Of course they leave with Algerian comic books and speak about them in their respective countries. At the moment, we distribute our comic books abroad via the salons and festivals in which we participate. We also sell by mail-order. Some of our books are found in a few bookshops abroad, as in the Institut du Monde Arabe’s bookshop for example.
NG: You are the director of Algiers’ Point Virgule bookshop, where you organize a fair number of events between authors and readers. With which types of books do you like to fill this bookshop?
DN: It is important for authors to be in contact with their readers. I’ve managed this bookshop for the last 16 years, and meeting-with-the-author events have always been part of our program. Our supply of books depends on demand. Children’s and history books, books of extracurricular activities, together with books on personal development are those that are the most requested by our readers, but I do stay very attached to international literature.
NG: Which of Dalimen’s books and authors would you recommend to readers who discover your publishing house?
DN: If you ask me about favorites today, I would say read without hesitation Jamil Rahmani & Michel Canesi’s new novel L’ultime preuve d’amour [The Ultimate Proof of Love], it’s marvellous!
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.