On why Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) is a time of joy and sorrow:
By Nadia Ghanem
Women in Translation Month is always a time of great excitement for me, but as a reader addicted to Algerian fiction it is also a time for sorrow. Few novels written by Algerian women have been translated (to English or to any other languages), and if I stuck to the list of works that have appeared in English translation, I would end up recommending the same books on a loop, making people think that Algeria’s literary production is almost entirely composed of works by Assia Djebar. Of course, I do enjoy painting for you, right now, a slightly more calamitous situation than the one I actually face – I blame Algerian fiction’s long love affair with tragedies for my theatrics. But the truth is still harsh.
Between 1956 and 2020, only 18 Algerian women (compared to 30 men) have so far been translated to the English language (see recension here). While I’ll never stop recommending Djebar, I do wish other Algerian novelists had made it to the shores of other languages. So to reconcile what is on the ground with what is on my mind, I thought WIT could be celebrated with a list of deliciously enjoyable works by Algerian women that could bring so much pleasure to readers in other languages if they were to be translated.
Some of the titles listed here were recently published in English translation, such as The Olive Trees’ Jazz by Samira Negrouche. translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker (2020). Others were written several decades ago, like the painter Baya Mahieddine’s recounting of an old Kabyle folktale to which she gave the title Le Grand Zoiseau (‘The great bird’) – a story printed on an art exhibition leaflet dated to 1947. A few of the titles selected here will soon appear in English translation, such as Djamila Morani’s The Djinn’s Apple translated by Sawad Hussain, which will be released in 2023 by Neem Tree Press. Most others await another language with whom to travel along a new route.
This list is made to celebrate these women’s skills and their stories’ spirit. Like a message in a bottle, I roll it up here and send it to say that these works exist, and were you to scan the horizons, you too would see them. Whenever you feel ready, let them on your ship.
1. The Olive Trees’ Jazz by Samira Negrouche. translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker, Pleiades Press, 2020.
In her review for The Middle East Eye, Marcia Lynx Qualey writes that “The Olive Trees’ Jazz and Other Poems opens by posing an urgent question about identity and language”. The bilingual collection “blurs the lines between essay, manifesto, open letter, and prose poem. In ‘Who is speaking,’ the poet-narrator seizes the reader by the shirtfront and asks: ‘Tell me – Who are you? When you speak in someone else’s language?’.” Read Marcia’s full review here.
2. The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems by Anna Gréki, a bilingual edition in French/English by Souheila Haïmiche and Cristina Viti (Smokestack Books, 2020), and Anna Greki: Juste au-dessus du silence (Just Above The Silence), a bilingual edition in French/Arabic by Lamis Saidi (Terrasses editions, 2019).
The work of Algerian poet Anna Greki (1931-1966) could not be found for a long time. Two separate anthologies have recently remedied this, and they present Greki’s poetry in English and in Arabic. In Just Above The Silence, the Algerian poet Lamis Saidi compiled a selection of Greki’s poems and translated them to the Arabic. Her edition also includes a number of texts Greki wrote about colonialism. The Streets of Algiers by Souheila Haïmiche and Cristina Viti also collects a selection of Greki’s poems, translated to the English language. Both anthologies contain the poems that Anna Greki composed while she was imprisoned by the French authorities in Algiers’ infamous Serkaji jail between March 1957 and November 1958. She was being punished for her support of, and participation in, the war of independence. Serkaji, formerly Barberousse prison, was known to be a place of horror, where women were tortured and abused by jailors. Souheila Haïmiche and Cristina Viti write that Greki “was able to smuggle a notebook out of Barberousse prison and to publish her first collection in 1963, while exiled in Tunis.”
3. “Ziɣ mazal ur nebdi” (‘So then we have not yet begun’) by Dihya Lwiz (Facebook, 27 June 2017)
Dihya Lwiz is a novelist and a poet who wrote in the Kabyle language and in Arabic. Marcia Lynx Qualey interviewed Lwiz in 2014 to discuss her exploration of the “black decade” in her fiction. Dihya Lwiz passed away in 30 June 2017, aged 32, from cancer. She regularly published her poems on facebook, and her last publication was the below poem:
Ziɣ mazal ur nebdi
Abrid ɣer tmusni
Abrid ɣer tlelli
Deg wiyaḍ mi ara nettwali
Amek akken yeshel kulci
Ɣur-neɣ amzun d awezɣi
Ur neẓri acimi
Nugi ad neffeɣ seg iḍelli
N wayen lɛali
Iɛejba-ɣ leɛwej dg-i nettili
Nugad an beddel
Akken ahat fella-ɣ ad tbeddel !!
So then we have not yet begun
The road toward wisdom
The road toward freedom
For those we always look on
how is it all so easy
It seems, for us it never is
We do not know why
We refuse to leave yesterday
We like habits
We like destruction
Among all the good there is
We like the twisted things in which we live
We fear we’ll change
Because perhaps then it will change
To honor her memory, several national newspapers republished this last piece in the days that followed her funeral, and readers published their translations of it to the French language. I translate it awkwardly to English here, to give a sense of the themes she explored in her novels and poetry. I hope that Kabyle-English speakers will join in to give their own rendition.
4. The Palm Tree by Zeinab Laouedj in Paroles d’Algériens: Ecrire pour résister dans l’Algerie du XXè Siècle (Writing to Resist in 20th Century Algeria), Serpent à plume editions, 2003
Zeinab Laouedj is one of Algeria’s literary treasures. She is a prolific poet who writes in Arabic; her works is largely unknown outside the Middle East and North Africa. A handful of her poems appeared in French translation, in the collective volume Paroles d’Algériens : Ecrire pour résister dans l’Algerie du XXè Siècle (Writing to Resist in 20th Century Algeria), published by Serpent à plume editions in 2003. In this collection, her poem The Palm Tree is dedicated to Abdelkader Alloua, the Algerian playwright assassinated on 10 March 1994, and to the poet Youcef Sebti assassinated on 27 December 1993:
I am a Lion
And I will make you tremble
til your forests
Me, the Crazed
Mad for the love of his land
Where no other madman
The earth turns
Even lying down
Of the earth.
(English translation by Nadia Ghanem)
5. The Djinn’s Apple by Djamila Morani (Tuffa7 el-Djinn) translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain, Teem Tree Press, 2023
Part crime novel, part historical fiction, The Djinn’s Apple is an exciting story set during the caliphate of Haroun al-Rashid and narrated in the first person by twelve-year old Nardeen. The book opens when Nardeen just about escapes death. Her whole family has been assassinated in their home, following the caliph’s order. Nardeen finds refuge as an apprentice, but after some time has elapsed, she has to make a choice: find out why her father was framed, or forget and move on. The Djinn’s Apple is Djamila Morani’s second work of fiction. An excerpt translated by Sawad Hussein can be read on Word Without Borders here.
6. The complete corpus of the Algerian writer Zoulikha Saoudi, 1943-1972, compiled by Ahmed Cheribet (الآثار الأدبية الكاملة للأديبة الجزائرية، زليخا السعودي), 2001
For several decades now, the novelist Waciny Laredj has been calling attention to the work of Zoulikha Saoudi (1944-1972), whom he calls “the mother of Algerian literature” for her pioneering work and style. Saoudi emerged on the literary scene in 1960 when she narrated her first short story “The Victim” on the radio. Three years later, her first novel The Dissolution was finished, and it was serialized in El-Ahrar newspaper from 11 February 1963. Laredj deplores (quite rightly) that Saoudi has largely been forgotten, except in Khenchela, her home city, where she is still celebrated. Zoulikha Saoudi’s fiction was impossible to find for decades until the scholar Ahmed Cheribet collected her novel, short stories, plays, and letters in an anthology published in 2001(see here). The Algerian poet Zeineb Laouedj is currently preparing a collection of Zoulikha Saoudi’s correspondence for publication. For more on Zoulikha Saoudi, see here.
7. Naked Veins by Zakia Allal (شرايين عارية) (readable online here)
Zakia Allal has a deliciously dark sense of humor (and of doom), and this short story illustrates her style well. A man, coaxed by his wife, goes to hospital to give blood, as another catastrophe is again plaguing Algeria. But when the nurse comes to draw blood, something unexpected happens. Zakia Allal, born in 1966, has published several short-story collections; many were collected online by Allal on her website and can be read there. In 2015, she released a novel Returning to My Grave (عائد إلى قبري), which follows an Algerian journalist covering events in Iraq.
8. An Amazigh Mirror (مرايا أمازيغية) by Nadjet Dahmoun (ANEP editions, 2016)
In this collection of thirty stories, different women reflect in turn on the hardships that have marked their lives. They are of all ages, of all walks of life, from cities and villages. Sherifa recalls the moment her wish to divorce became overwhelming the moment she saw her in-laws cut up a partridge into 35 pieces. She realized there and then she could no longer stay part of this family. There is Na Hbouba, who reflects on why she killed her daughter, and Meriem who reconciles herself to the torture she endured as a child. These are difficult stories, and the horror that unfolds is remarkably suspenseful. In her introduction, Nadjet Dahmoun explains she wanted to capture the stories of Kabyle women trapped in traditional and patriarchal environments.
9. And Other Dreary Things (واشياء مملة اخرة) by Amina Cheikh (Hibr edition, 2016)
And Other Dreary Things was named after one of Amina’s son’s outbursts “واشياء مملة اخرة”, which ended a long list of all the things his siblings were annoying him with. In this collection of ten short stories, Amina Cheikh explores feelings of loneliness and emptiness, and our rebellions to shake them off. Her novel, أسفل الحب, published by Apic Editions, won the Ali Maachi Prize in 2008. The prolific novelist Smail Yabrir, known for his multigenerational family sagas, is her husband.
10. La planète mauve (The Mauve Planet) by Safia Ketou (Naaman editions, 1983)
In 1983, Safia Ketou (1944-1989) published a short story collection called La planète mauve et autres Nouvelles (The Mauve Planet and other stories), from works she had written between 1962 and 1978. The titular story is a sci-fi short. Two astronauts, Alym and Ryad suddenly lose control of their spaceship. They are being pulled off course by the Mauve Planet’s leader who has a special request for the two men. My English translation of this story here could be vastly improved by sci-fi fans!
11. Le grain magique (The Magic Grain) by Taos Amrouche (originally published in 1966 by Maspero editions, France)
“The Berbers, said Ibn Khaldoun in the 15th century, tell such a large number of stories that if we took the trouble to write them down, we would fill volumes upon volumes.” It is with this sentence that Taos Amrouche opens her anthology The Magic Grain, a collection of the Kabyle folktales, proverbs, and poems she collected and dedicated to her mother, the poet Marguerite Fatma Aït Mansour. The Magic Grain is a classic in Amazigh literature. Note that some of the stories’ comments on skin color are offensive.
12. Algerian Folktales (Contes du terroir algérien) by Zoubeida Mameria, Dalimen editions, 2013
This lush collection of Algerian folktales bursts with stories of hungry ogresses, talking bones, shape-shifters, and magic mixing with daily activities. Labourers’ carts are pulled by lions and snakes, and midwifes help frogs give birth. Zoubeida Mameria wanted to put to pen the stories of her childhood, and she gathered them in three volumes, using French and Derja. ArabLit ran an article about the collection here.
13. Le grand zoiseau (The great great big bird) by Baya Mahieddine
The Algerian painter Baya Mahieddine is not known to have written fiction, but it seems that when Galerie Maeght in Paris organized Baya’s first exhibition in November 1947, they asked her for a story. Did they want the story that inspired her collection? Or were they looking for the artist’s words to add to the exhibition leaflet? Whatever the intention, the result is that Baya told them the story of Le grand zoiseau, a Kabyle folktale that still lives on today, as confirmed to me by the Algerian novelist Lynda Chouiten. In this story, told in Baya’s own words, a little girl wants to marry desperately. She meets a man, and he is a miniature human who’ll just have to do. But before they can tie the knot, a fair bit of magic has to happen, which will involve a little dog that can drink rivers and a magic bird that holds much wisdom. The story and leaflet can be read on ArabLit here in the original French, and in my English translation. Improvements are invited, as well as translators of other languages.
14. Fatma n’Parapli by Safia Ouarezki, inked by Soumeya Ouarezki, drawn by Mahmoud Benameur (Dalimen editions, 2014)
This vibrant comix written in Algerian Derja follows two women, Lallahoum and Fatma, in their neighborhood (Flissa, El Biar) on the heights of Algiers. Fatma collects broken umbrellas, Lallahoum mends things and sometimes tells the fortunes of the neighborhood’s women. Safia Ouarezki spoek with ArabLit here about the story’s exploration of depression, and of women ostracized by their own communities.
15. Proverbs of Old (Lemtoul nta3 zmen) by Fakira-Wassila Douar, El Dar El Othmania, 2013
“They say: kiss a dog on his mouth until you get what you want from him” (Qallek: buss l-kleb men femmu ḥta teqdi ḥdjetek mennu). In the short 122 pages of this collection, Fakira-Wassila Douar recorded 337 wise sayings and 12 buqalat (poems told during divinatory sessions exclusively held and attended by women in Algiers) that were, or still are, specifically used in the capital. Each piece is given in Derja, and translated to French by Amine Mehrez. You can read a few excerpts translated to English here, and remember “They say: follow the advice of the one who makes you cry, not the one who makes you laugh.”
Memoirs and biographies
15. Birth of a Writer by Zhour Ounissi, translated from the Arabic by Shirley Eber and Fadia Faqir
Zhour Ounissi is one of Algeria’s well-known novelist. Like Rabia Djelty and Zeineb Laouedj, her work has barely circulated outside of the MENA region. I have found no translation of her work to French or English, except for her essay “Birth of a Writer” in the collection In the House of Silence. In this volume, editor by Fadia Faqir collected a series of autobiographical essays by women who write in Arabic. There, Zhour Ounissi speaks about her childhood and awakening as a writer. The texts were translated by Shirley Eber and Fadia Faqir.
17. Les algériennes du château d’Amboise– La suite de l’émir Abd el-Kader (The Algerian women of the Castle of Amboise – the retinue of the Emir Abd el-Kader) by Amel Chouati, published by La Cheminante editions in France in 2013, and reedited by Sedia editions in Algeria in 2016
In December 1847, Emir Abd-el-Kader, his men and their respective families found themselves entirely encircled by a detachment of 200 French army men. They had been betrayed, and were now given a choice. Either they surrendered or they would all be massacred. After years of resisting France’s colonization of Algeria, Emir Abd-el-Kader was forced to surrender, and it was agreed that he, his family, and retinue would be sent away in exile either in Alexandria or somewhere in Syria. But after their surrender, the French recanted and imprisoned them all for five years in the château d’Amboise (including seven months in a castle in Pau). The castle of Amboise was dilapidated. It was no place to live, especially in the winter months. But after having separated the nobles from the servants (the latter sent away on board ships in enslavement), everybody was forced to live there. Unsurprisingly, biographies of the Emir have mostly focused on the stories of the men. And then came along Amel Chouati. In The Algerian women of the Castle of Amboise, Chouati has reconstructed the story of the women and children who were imprisoned with the Emir, and who had fought by his side, included his wives, and his sisters-in-law. Chouati discovered that 25 women and children had died at the castle of Amboise between 1848 and 1852. The French threw their bodies in a common grave. In 2005, the Algerian sculptor Rachid Koraichi was commissioned to design a place of remembrance over that space. It is now a garden called the Jardin d’Orient opened to the public. In her tremendous study, Amel Chouati rebuilt the forgotten lives of women and children long forgotten in history books. You can listen to Amel Chouati speak about her research here.
18. The Mischief by Assia Djebar (La soif), translated to English by Frances Frenaye (Elek Books, UK, 1958)
Assia Djebar’s first novel was published in 1957 by René Julliard editions. Its translation to English followed a year later. It is one of the earliest works of fiction produced by an Algerian novelist to be have been translated to the English language. In this sensuous novel, a young girl starts playing with the feelings of a couple, while spending her last summer in Algeria before she goes to study abroad. Very soon, the consequences of her meddling will lead to events no one foresaw. In 1959, Avon books released the novel under the title Nadia – a young and naïve girl in her first experience of love.
19. Comment j’ai fumé tous mes livres (How I Smoked All My Books) by Fatma Zohra Zamoum. published in 2006 by La Chambre d’écho in France and reedited by Chihab editions in Algeria in 2015
The novel opens with an unnamed woman who has decided time has come for her to write her novel. To make time for writing, while still paying the bills, she quits her job in publishing and works part-time as a market researcher. Very soon though, she realises she has forgotten to factor in one essential budget expenditure: her cigarettes, without which she can’t write. The only belongings of value she owns is her personal library. The novel unfolds little by little, as this writer parts with her books, and as she observes her own reactions to separating from stories that had once meant so much. And as her novel grows, her personal library dwindles. How I smoked all my books is a witty and amusing novel about the place that literature has in our home and lungs, and on the act of writing. A brief overview of the novel was published on ArabLit here.
20. The Murder of Sonia Zaid by Rahima Karim
When Sonia is found lifeless by her neighbour, all assume she suffocated because of the gas leak, but detectives are curious: there are one too many cups of coffee on the table. This entertaining detective fiction set in Algiers was written by one of the rare women who engages with crime fiction in Algeria. Check out ArabLit Quaterly’s CRIME issue (2020) for Hassan El Mohtasib’s artwork around a selection of Algerian detective novels including this one.
21. Flutters of a Star by Amal Bouchareb ( سكرات نجمة ), Chihab editions, 2015
Ilyas Mady is found stabbed in his grandfather’s apartment in Telemly, Algiers. Mady is both Italian and Algerian, and his dual citizenship puts pressure on Inspector Ibrahim and his team to uncover what has happened. Ilias Mady was a world-famous artist who taught art in Turin, and had come back to Algiers at the request of Sheikh Ben Haroun to solve a puzzle. What is the origin of the Khamsa (the hand of Fatma)? For Sheikh Abdallah, a historian who specialised in ancient secrets, it is originally a Jewish symbol, each fingers of that precious palm representing one of the books of Torah: the Exegesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Devarim. For young Ishaq, symbols don’t have a single point of origin, they come from a shared past in which each member of a community participate. When Ibrahim finds Ben Haroun’s number in the dead man’s pocket and traces Ermano Bergonzi’s calls to Turin, the net takes on an international angle and the enigma becomes deadly.
Amal Bouchareb’s playful story is even mischievous in its title. The word ‘nedjma’, both references a ‘star’ and also the title of Yacine Kateb’s famous novel in which the main character, Nedjma represents Algeria (a metaphor used in a type of myths called El-Djazia in Algeria). In her title, Bouchareb winks at this classic, and engages with it between the lines of her fast-faced thriller.
Flutters of a Star will be released at the end of September 2021 by Edizioni Le Assasine, in Italian translation as ‘Il Bianco e il Nero. The novel is translated from the Arabic by Jolana Guardi.
22. Les Pirates du Desert (Pirates of the Desert) by Zehira Houfani, ENAL, 1986
Zehira Houfani’s second detective novel is set in Tamanrasset where the detectives are comically useless and would have understood nothing if a female suspect hadn’t explained everything. It’s a fun read, and as far as I could find it is the earliest crime fiction by a woman published in Algeria. Algerian writer Assia Dridi’s 1973 detective novel God and the trinity precedes it by 13 years, but it was published in France. ArabLit interviewed Zehira Houfani a few years ago here.
23. Chuchotements (Whispers) by Leila Aslaoui-Hemmadi, Dalimen, 2015
When Hourria is suddenly called by her grandmother begging she returns to Algeria, she knows something terrible has happened. Nabil, her brother, has disappeared. He is a lawyer, and in this novel, we are in 1990s during the ‘black decade’. The women of this family are exhausted. For generations, violent conflicts have robbed them of their men. Whispers is a family drama, narrated by a woman who was trying to escape the violence of war, and of family traditions.
24. Le châle de Zeineb by Leïla Hamoutene (Zeineb’s Shawl), Casbah editions, 2015
Zeineb’s Shawl is a novel that follows several generations of women until the present day. The story begins with Zeineb, a little girl whose world falls apart in 1840 when the French invade her area. She survives, and in remembrance her descendants hand each other her shawl as a symbol of resistance. Zeineb’s shawl becomes the surviving witness to the many trials that awaited generations of Algerians from France’s colonisation of Algeria up to the war of independence. Leïla Hamoutene won the Escale Littéraire prize in 2015 for this novel.
25. Terre des femmes (Women’s Land) by Nassira Belloula
Belloula always has explored women’s rights, past and present, in her fiction for many years. Terre des Femmes (Women’s Earth) stretches from 1847 to 1960, and is set in Algeria’s tachawit region (the Aures mountains). From one generation to the next, six women sacrifice everything they have made to keep their family alive. Nassira Belloula won the Kateb Yacine Prize in 2016 for this novel.
This concludes my list of personal recommendations. However, this post is based on a Twitter thread which began on August 4, 2020 and lasted for that month. By the middle of it, other readers had joined in to recommend the titles they too would like to see in translation, here are a few answers:
Other readers’ suggestions
26. La Grotte éclatée et Arris de Yamina Mecharkra, recommended by @djouadi_arslane
Yasmina Mechakra’s two powerful novels The Cave and Arris, made her work a cornerstone of Algerian literature.
27. Les criquelins by Leila Marouane (novella), recommended by @Kei_ghdh
A story that follows a man in a psychiatric ward, and who momentarily regains consciousness.
28. La Seine était rouge (The Seine Was Red) by Leila Sebbar, recommend by @sarahbmghr
Set in 1996, this novel follows Amel and Omer, who slowly become aware of the events that occurred on October 17, 1961. On that day, Algerians who were demonstrating for freedom in Paris were assassinated by the French police, who threw their bodies in the Seine.
29. Fatima ou les Algériennes au square by Leila Sebbar, recommended by Cheikh Evara @michtosincere
Fatima is one of the first wave of women to have immigrated to France in the 80s. Exile is made especially hard by her husband’s violence. Her seven year-old daughter Dalila, beaten by her father, soon decides she will break free. A story of immigration, about the Algerian community’s place in France.
30. La fille du berger (The Shepherd’s Daughter) by Laura Mouzaia, recommended by Khalid @TontonKhalid
Laura Mouzaia is a sociologist who worked on the status of women in Kabyle society, and on immigration issues. For the blurb, her publishers L’Harmattan chose to simply quote a letter that Mouloud Mammeri had sent the author to express his awe at “this poignant novel,” and at her courage for having put in words “the bare, bleak, and bloody truth.”
Nadia Ghanem is ArabLit’s Morocco and Algeria 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.