New Fiction in Translation & an Author Talk: Said Khatibi’s ‘The End of the Sahara’

In the latest episode of the BULAQ podcast, Episode 100, co-hosts Ursula Lindsey and M Lynx Qualey talk to Algerian novelist Said Khatibi about his novel The End of the Sahara, which won the 2023 Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the “young author” category. (Listen to the episode.)

End of the Sahara is polyphonic literary detective novel set in southern Algeria in September and October 1988, and it begins with the murder of a young singer named Zakia Zaghouani. Although there is an Inspector Hamid who is supposed to be investigating Zaza’s murder, the story is told, in alternating chapters, by more than a dozen different characters. Most have something to do with the Sahara Hotel, which was where Zakia Zaghouani, or Zaza, worked as a singer. Among the possible suspects are Zakia’s brothers, who disowned her; her previous fiancé; her current fiancé, Bashir; the hotel’s owner, Maimoun; another singer at the hotel, the Golden Sheikha; the front-desk clerk, Kamal; inspector Hamid, who was a frequent visitor to the discotheque and in love with Zaza. We also follow the stories of Ibrahim, who owns a VHS rental shop in the city and whose mother is a cleaning lady at the hotel; and Noura, Bashir’s lawyer. Each character helps us better understand not just Zaza’s murder, but the other crimes going on in the city, which is on edge of the October Riots.

From ‘End of the Sahara’

By Said Khatibi

Translated by Alexander E. Elinson

Bachir

A guard shouted my name, and those around me looked my way.

Sluggishly, I moved my medium frame forward. I felt like I had lost weight and my hair had grown back. I slapped my cheeks to get the blood flowing to them and rubbed my eyes that I only seldom closed these past few days. I get a few hours of sleep at the most, waking up drenched in sweat, terrified from nightmares, or to the prisoners’ banter, or searches by the guards. I want to swallow some pills that will plunge me into a sleep as deep as that of the People of the Cave. Ever since I entered prison, I have felt like I’ve entered my grave. As soon as I set foot outside, Sliced Nose’s mocking voice reaches me: “There are people who have family, and people who are cut off from the tree.” I paid no attention to what he said; the branch of passion that had connected me to Zakia had been severed, and she was my only family. I wasn’t interested in asking him what his name was, but I learned that he was accused of setting his divorced neighbor’s house on fire, thinking she was engaging in prostitution. The fire left her infant child severely wounded. I walked down the long corridor behind the full-lipped guard, like the lips of the idiot who, when I was six years old, circumcised me with scissors that looked like sheep shears. Instead of turning right into the room where I had met with my cousin, he continued straight, then turned left. I entered a vestibule that led to a glass divider. I saw prisoners who had been removed from two other cells standing in a straight row, their backs turned. At the end of the row, there was an empty corner where I found an intercom. As soon as I looked up, I was met with the sight of my mother on the other side of the divider, pressing the receiver to her ear. “Mom!” I yelled, but she couldn’t hear me. I could hardly contain myself, wanting to leap toward her and embrace her. I was delighted that she had forgotten how upset she was with me. Anxiously, I picked up the receiver and asked her how she was doing, and about my father and siblings. She assured me they were fine.

She spoke in a lowered voice. She had gotten a visitors’ permit from the courthouse my cousin had gone to with her.

“I’m innocent.”

“God decrees and does what He wills,” she responded in a defeated tone.

This was the first time she had ever visited a prison. She was uneasy, not knowing how many times she would be coming to see me. My relatives don’t believe I’m a mere suspect, except for Noura’s mother. The court of public opinion says that everyone who’s in jail is a criminal.

She asked me how I was doing and how I spent my days. I didn’t tell her about the overcrowding in the seven-person dorm room I now share with sixteen men (there were twelve when I got here), those charged with misdemeanors and felonies all mixed together. I didn’t tell her about how the water that only ran for two hours a day was currently cut off. I didn’t tell her about the heat that made me hate my own body. Or about the fights that would break out among the prisoners, that would end in bloodshed or broken bones. Ass-backwards! Or the food that was nothing more than salty dough, as if it had been baked with Zakia Zaghouani’s tears. I didn’t tell her about the snoring that filled the place with noise, or the persistent farting. Or about the “Pharmacien” and his quest to impose his leadership on us, and his wild ravings as he slept. Or about Rahhal who eased my isolation, sharing a plastic bucket with me to piss in so as to avoid the crowded bathroom, who always has a miswak stick dangling from his lips like a cigarette, who spends his day fasting and leading prayers by symbolically washing on the floor without performing the ritual wudu. (“The guards don’t let us have a tayammum stone to use in lieu of water, scared we’ll use it as a weapon.”) Out of kindness, I started to accompany him in prayer. I didn’t tell her about the light that’s never turned off. I didn’t tell her about that prisoner who stabbed his sister and won’t stop hitting his head against the wall until he bleeds and loses consciousness, or the guards who barge in whenever they want claiming to be conducting a search. Or about the twenty minutes of free time we get to walk in the yard, or about my giving in to sobbing, or about a fear that washes over me, my fear that my cousin will give up my case and I won’t find another lawyer to stand with me. I buried all of that deep down inside me and summarized the answer for her as I scratched my neck: “In patience and steadfastness.”

I pressed my hand on the glass divider. I wanted to touch her cheek, to settle myself, calling to mind how she used to sing in my ear when I was young while she picked the lice out of my hair: “Bachir, O Bachir. . . such a handsome boy. . . He brought nothing but good cheer.” Or she would tell me stories of the ghoul that had the head of a bull, the body of an old man, and the legs of a goat. I paid no attention to the prisoners next to me and ignored the guards who were lined up behind us. I wanted to say so many things to her, but I didn’t know where to start.

I had intended to ask her to tell Noura to come back and visit me but the fire-engine-like siren blasted before I could. A guard walked up to me and grabbed the receiver from my hand, announcing the end of the visit that had lasted no more than a few minutes, most of which we had spent in silence. “You’ll finish what you were saying next time,” he screamed in my face. Nevertheless, I kept yelling along with the other prisoners, but my mother didn’t understand what I meant. She sat glued to her chair on the other side looking at me being driven like a sheep back to where I had come from, the guard telling me: “We’ll search the basket then bring it to you.” I wasn’t even thinking of the basket she had brought. I wanted nothing other than for my cousin to come so I could provide her with the details that had come to mind about the murdered woman.

I found Sliced Nose sitting on my bed and he asked me with sleepy eyes:

“Any sweets?”

“The basket still hasn’t come.”

He began to ramble absentmindedly about what he was going to do when he got out, about his desire to learn how to cook and open a small restaurant close to the bus station, as if I had asked him about his future. A guard came in carrying a basket for me. I picked out what clothes and chocolate I needed while putting aside the other food and the rest of the sweets and bread for Sliced Nose and some prisoners next to him who had flocked to me like sheep that had come across a desert wasteland.

Now that I knew who had put an end to Zakia’s life, why was the lawyer taking so long to come see me again?

Said Khatibi studied French literature at the University of Algiers and did his Master’s at the Sorbonne. He has translated the writing of French Algerian authors, including the poetry of Kateb Yacine, and has worked as a journalist since 2006, having won the Arab Journalism Award and the Ibn Battuta Prize for Travel Literature. For the last eight years, Khatibi has worked and lived in Slovenia, a setting that has appeared in his award-winning novels. His 2018 novel Sarajevo Firewood was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2020, and he won the Katara Prize for his 2016 novel Forty Years Waiting for Isabel. His Sarajevo Firewood was translated by Paul Starkey and is available from Banipal Books. His 2022 novel, The End of the Sahara, won a 2023 Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

Alexander E. Elinson is associate professor of Arabic and head of the Arabic program at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is the translator of A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me and A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me by Youssef Fadel, and Hot Maroc by Yassin Adnan. He lives in New York.