Curated by Leonie Rau and Nadia Ghanem
As part of our special “In Focus: Algeria” section, we asked a number of Algerian writers, translators, and scholars to put together a list of their highlights from Algerian literature.
If you were to choose 4-7 titles that would represent, to you, the most interesting books (perhaps experimental, challenging, or influential in some way) written by Algerian writers in the last 10 years, what would they be? And (perhaps more importantly) why?
كقزم يتقدم ببطء داخل الأسطورة / Like a Dwarf Progressing Slowly Inside the Fairytale, by Lamis Saidi (2019, Dar al-Ayn li-l-Nashr).
The strength of this poetry collection lies in its uniqueness in terms of celebrating the place (Algiers) and its history, at the expense of the discourse of the denial of identities that has spread within modern Arabic poetry. The collection’s merit becomes apparent through the way its poems are organized according to the geography of Algiers with all its beauty, mysteries, and meanderings.
رائحة الذئب / The Wolf’s Smell, by Samia Ben Driss (2015, Manshurat Mim).
This novel displays the commitment of the new generation of Algerian writers to the cause of memory by way of returning to the history of French colonialism and the marks it left on those generations that did not live through this historical period but inherited the wounds of that identity. With her strong feminine pen, Samia Ben Driss is able to approach this topic from a feminist angle that also marks her other writings where we find her disappear with the woman and her ability to contain the memory of the nation in its various representations.
القصائد التي احترقت / The Poems That Were Burned by Jamal Saadawi (2014, Dar al-Hibr).
This poetic play is characterized by the bold critical discussion of a corrupt political system while the writer retains a highly aesthetic and artistic language. The playwright and poet Jamal Saadawi skillfully balances a poetic sentimental language with a committed political discourse that makes this publication one of the most important books issued in Algeria in the last ten years, in terms of the strength of the language and the depth of the message.
وادي الحناء / A River of Henna by Jamila Talbawi (2017, Manshurat Mim).
In this novel, Jamila Talbawi takes us deep into the Algerian desert, where we breathe serenity. In pleasant language and a soothing narrative, far away from the anxiety of the north, a pivotal feminist figure shows us the world through her lens, where Algeria rests in a valley of beauty and feminine energy that remains the beating heart of a nation of resistance. Despite all her wounds, she knows how to rest from the burdens and ambiguity of the present, with a craving for authenticity, of which the Algerian desert remains the most fortified reservoir.
Amal Bouchareb is an Algerian novelist, born in 1984 in Damascus, Syria. She worked as a professor in the Department of English and the Department of Philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure for more than six years before settling in Italy in 2014. She currently runs Arabesque magazine, the first magazine in Italy specialized in Arabic literature and arts and has published translations of more than twenty Italian poets and writers in Arabic. In 2021, a critical edition of her writings was published, entitled The Subaltern Speaks, by Dr. Ibrahim Boukhalfa. Her lastest release, In the Beginning Was the Word (2021), is the final installment of her Algiers trilogy, which she began in 2015 with Flutters of a Star and The Darkness of Darkness (2018).
Published in 2008, Body Writing / Vie et mort de Karim Fatimi by Mustapha Benfodil (Éditions Barzakh, Alger, re-edited in France with Macula édititons under the title Alger, journal intense) is a veritable experience of writing (and reading) which plunges the reader into the dark twists and turns of Algeria’s 1990s war, thanks to author-playwright-journalist Mustapha Benfodil’s astute pen. An epistolary novel daring in form and content, the book is a rare literary knuckle-punch—precise, mad, and furious, assembling erasures and drawings. It is the kind of artistic accomplishment this author has been searching for after having experimented in various other ways in the past.
Benfodil shares this trend of opening up the historical and geographical sphere of the Arab world with another author, Ryad Girod, whose Les Yeux de Mansour (Éditions Barzakh, 2018, English translation published by Transit Books in the US) is an unsettling tale that begins somewhere in Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia, where Mansour, an expat and descendant of the Emir Abdelkader, is about to be executed for heresy. While waiting for the sword to sever his head, this powerful novel takes the reader back through the interwoven history of Sufism and the materialist excesses of the 21st century.
Another interrogation of the “Arab question” takes place in France: The excellent essay by young historian Nedjib Sidi Moussa, La fabrique du musulman (Libertalia: Paris, 2017) examines the “great replacement” of “the Arab” by “the Muslims” in the French imagination and discourse, as well as the proliferation of the calamitous fixation on identity created by the naïve or willful blindness of the elites, especially those of the left. An essential book.
Adlène Meddi is an Algerian journalist and writer. He was born in 1975 in El Harrach, east of Algiers. He studied journalism in Algiers and media sociology in Marseille before he began working in the Algerian press in 1996. Meddi currently works as a journalist for Middle East Eye (London) and Le Point (Paris). After Le Casse-tête turc (2002) and La prière du Maure (2008), 1994 is his third novel. It was published by Barzakh in Algiers (2017) and by Rivages/Noir in 2018 (Prix Transfuges du meilleur polar francophone) and was translated into Italian and published by Hopefulmonster Editore in March 2021. He co-wrote Jours tranquilles à Alger with his partner Mélanie Matarese (Riveneuves, 2019) and has participated in multiple art projects with visual artist and photographer Ammar Bouras. He is also the co-founder of “Corsaires Associés,” an art agency located in Algiers.
مذكرات جزائري سعيد / Memories of a Happy Algerian, by Al-Hashimi Larabi (2013).
Al-Hashimi Larabi (1929–2016) lived as a poet, but his most important book is Memories of a Happy Algerian. It is rare to encounter a book such as this in Algeria. This book isn’t only a biography of its author, but a cultural biography of Algeria—from before independence, the landing of the Allied troups in WW2, up to the eighties of the previous century. These memories are an important history for Algeria, in the realms of theater, music, and literature. Al-Hashimi was a witness to the transformations of the country, a companion to famous writers and artists of different eras. He wrote about them, and about their works which he witnessed being born. He also knew the country’s politicians, and he was the one who wrote the speech that Houari Boumédiène read directly after his coup against President Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965.
زمان الغربان / The Time of Crows, by Djilali Khalas (2018).
Djilali Khalas is considered the last of the Algerian novel’s founding generation. His name became popular, especially in the mid-seventies and then in the eighties, with a number of novels that took the contemporary history of Algeria as their framework, among which The Dog’s Smell is noteworthy. He disappeared from view for nearly ten years, then returned with his latest novel, The Time of Crows, a dystopian novel, in which he presents the future condition of Algeria as he imagines it, in its conflicts and in its internal turmoil. Its events take place in the year 2072 and the author believes that in the future, war will be triggered only by empty stomachs, by hunger, and that the people’s revolution against the dictator will arise because of bread.
Meursault, contre-enquête, by Kamel Daoud (2015).
This novel was published for the first time in 2014 in Algeria as the debut novel of Kamel Daoud—who was previously known as a journalist—but did not gain much attention until it was republished in France the following year. Such is the state of Algerian literature in general, no one hears about it unless it is published outside its borders. The protagonist of the novel is called Haroun, and the author assumes that he is the brother of the Arab who was murdered by Morceau (the hero of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger). This novel is an attempt at retaliating against the oblivion and disregard that the Arab suffered in Camus’s novel, a desire to restore the Algerian history so neglected by the author of The Stranger. But little by little, we discover that Haroun is no different from Morceau, that Algeria still lives in a world of absurdity, which the criminal and the victim share with one another.
Enjamber la flaque où se reflète l’enfer, dire le viol, by Souad Labbize (2019).
Algeria has a long history of feminism, and of supporting women, but this hardly appears in literature. We do not find literature engaged in feminism or in its defense, but with this book, the poet Souad Labbize broke this rule. Despite its small size, its importance continues to this day. A book that sets forth and exposes in diaphanous, poetic language what each woman suffers in silence, to say what others cannot, to expose rape and its harsh psychological consequences for the victim. The poet waited for more than forty years before giving her testimony about rape, and we need another forty years to understand the psychological violence from which women suffer, especially in Algeria.
The Chadli Years, by H’mida Ayachi (2014).
H’mida Ayachi lived for more than two decades at the edges of the scene, sometimes as a novelist, sometimes as a theater actor and author, and once as a journalist. In recent years, he has become one of the most important cultural historians in the country, incessantly narrating fragments of his biography and the biographies of those he knew, creatives or politicians, in his book The Chadli Years. From the beginning, we might imagine that it is the biography of former Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid, and truly, the writer starts with the president’s story, but soon changes the angle to look at the history of the biography of Algerian culture in the eighties of the last century. The book tells of the beginnings of rai music, of the author’s relationship with Kateb Yacine, of theater and censorship, and how Algerian culture regained balance and liberation after the October 5, 1988 revolution.
Carnets intimes, by Taos Amrouche (2014).
Taos Amrouche died in 1976, but her Intimate Notebooks were not published until 2014. They are not just a biography, but a complete literary text, full of stories, anecdotes, and psychological conditions of the writer. Taos Amrouche is the first female Algerian novelist—if we correctly classify her as such—; in her Intimate Notebooks, we discover the face of a woman, fighter, lover, we discover Taos Amrouche in her daily circumstances, in her silence and clamor, in her anxiety and attachment to the land of her ancestors. She hailed from the Djurdjura mountains, whose oral culture shaped her, as Taos lived as a writer and singer, busy documenting ancestral poetry and wisdom, whether with her voice or in her writings.
Said Khatibi is a novelist, born in1984 in Algeria. He has a BA in French Literature from the University of Algiers and an MA in Cultural Studies from the Sorbonne. Sarajevo Firewood is his third novel in Arabic (first in English translation), and was shortlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
It is difficult to compile a list of the most important publications in Algeria during the last decade, say 2011–2021, especially since the Algerian literary scene is fundamentally divided into two languages spheres—Arabic and French—, but our topic here is writing in Arabic. I will try, from a personal perspective and according to what I have read, to list some of the titles in which I see an attempt at contemporary writing and an engagement with a fragile Arab writing space. This space is dominated by a specific type of fiction writing determined by what has won prizes, which has become a compass for the choices of publishers and libraries. The books I chose here may have earned their right to be published, but I am not trying use this opportunity to see that justice is done to these titles just because their texts have not yet been widely distributed, no. In poetry there are three names that I see trying, in different ways and at different speeds, to carve language and writing into a poetic tradition that is not modeled on foreign paradigms:
شاهي عطشة منك / Shahi is Thirsty for You, by Ramzi Naili (Bohima Publishing, 2018), a collection of prose vernacular poetry that opens a door that no one had ever opened before. Naili’s cadence and tone, which we had heard before in her prose poems in Fusha, returns here stronger and clearer.
مائة وعشرون مترا من البيت / One Hundred and Twenty Meters from the House, by Khaled Ben Saleh (Manshurat al-Ikhtilaf, 2012). Among all that Khaled Ben Saleh has published, his second book remains remarkable, asking its questions from the country’s backyard, on the outskirts of the desert, and directing them towards a transformed Arab world that the poet can only look at and rephrase.
كقزم يتقدم ببطء داخل الأسطورة / Like a Dwarf Progressing Slowly Inside the Fairytale, by Lamis Saidi (Dar Al-Ain, 2019). Right from the title poem, which can be considered a small manifesto, the translator and poet redefines the city in which she lives but also the material she uses: poetry. Written by Lamis and translated by the Francophone Algerian Poets, a distinctly founded project.
As for prose writing, which is the most prolific in terms of production, I would suggest three texts:
نورس باشا / Nawras Pasha, by Hajar Quaidari (Towa, 2012). The writer goes back in time to the Ottoman period of Algerian history, trying to find a voice for her character, and unlike the contemporary Arab historical novel, Hajar does not try to flee the present by escaping to the past.
حب في خريف مائل / Love in a Tilted Autumn, by Samir Qasimi (Manshurat al-Ikhtilaf, 2014). Through trips in rickety trains and taxis, at stations or in the capital’s filthy public parks, and encountering a succession of characters… We have here a novel written for the pleasure of storytelling.
أناشيد الملح / Anthems of Salt, by Larbi Ramadani (Manshurat al-Mutawassit, 2019). What Ramadani wrote is a necessary testimony and record of an Algerian tragedy that has lasted for more than twenty years—‘Harga’, or irregular migration towards Europe. The book’s sometimes frivolous and sometimes emotional tone that carries us across seas, forests, and refugee centers in the Mediterranean in the post-2011 era. With its theme and style, we can say that Larbi wrote something of a long anthem.
Salah Badis is a writer from Algeria. He has published the short story collection هذه أمور تحدث (These Things Happen, 2019), and a volume of poetry, ضجر البواخر (The Boredom of Ships, 2016). He translates from the French and writes newspaper stories from time to time.