Twenty years after independence, Algerian literature in Arabic is gaining international recognition, thanks mainly to two novelists -- Abdelhamid Benhedouga and Tahar Wattar. Each has published several novels since 1970 which are notable for their sharply critical views of Algerian society.
Abdelhamid Benhedouga is very clear on how he sees the writer’s role. “I am not interested in what goes right. I am not a writer who applauds -- others do that. I am interested in the weak points, in the conflicts and the crises. As a writer this is where I consider I must intervene”.
His first novel, Rih al-Janub (South Wind), published in 1971, establishes a theme which is central to his novels -- the role of women in the family and society. It tells the story of Nafissa, an 18-year old who comes home to her village for the summer holidays, and her relationship with her father.
He is threatened with the loss of his land under the agrarian reform and, in a bid to save it, wants his daughter to marry the local mayor. Nafissa tries to run away but fails.
Benhedouga’s upbinging in a small mountain village in the wilaya (province) of Sétif enables him vividly to depict the rural world of Algeria. “I believe it is my family life, the way I saw my mother and sisters live, which led me, maybe unconsciously, to write about women and women’s conditions.
“Of course, my father oppressed my mother. It was in the nature of things. When you oppress someone knowingly, you expect a reaction, so it’s not so bad. An instinctive oppression, part of custom, is worse.
“In order to build a just and free society, one has to start by liberating men, and one cannot aspire to liberate men if women remain in their present condition. If my son is not educated by a free mother, he is not going to be free himself”.
Nihayat al-Ams (The End of Yesterday) , published in 1975, presents a more complex social picture. Bachir, a fighter, comes home victorious but finds his village razed and his wife apparently dead. He goes to the capital city but is quickly disgusted by the political in-fighting, so he asks an influential friend to find him a teaching post in a small village.
There his efforts to change people’s outlook bring him into conflict with a coalition of feudal landlords and conservative shaikhs. Bachir finally discovers that a poor woman who lives in the village, the widow of a harki (enrolled in the French militia during the liberation struggle) is the wife he had thought was dead. She had given him up for dead and married the harki, who after independence was executed.
Beenhedouga says the book can be read on several levels. “The main theme is the different ways of building in a new society: one can go back to the past, taking from it whatever is positive, and build the future. Or one can make a clean sweep, start from nothing, and build again”.
The harki’s wife is not only an Algerian woman who marries an unknown man, revealed only on the wedding night, and who becomes a victim of war and poverty. “She is also Algeria soiled by foreign occupation, before and during the colonial period”.
Benhedouga’s most recent novel, Al-Jisr al-Mustahil (The Impossible Bridge), sets women’s problems against the social upheavals which followed independence. Shaikh Allouah, an employee of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, is only interested in climbing the social ladder through his relatives and through well-calculated marriages.
A domestic tyrant (his children nickname him “the general”), he totally ignores the despair, hypocrisy and rebellion of those, especially the women, whom he oppresses. The irony is that the novel is set in 1976, at a time when Algerians experienced a rare freedom of expression during the debate on the National Charter.
In contrast to the other novels it is set in the city of Algiers, which is invaded by hundreds of thousands of peasants, who build storeys on top of the elegant villas of the former colonialists.
Benhedouga sees this mass movement from the countryside as a “senseless exodus”. It is an abnormal situation when a whole village or small town goes to the big city. There is something wrong somewhere”.
He concludes that if the last 20 years have seen the standard of living increase 10 times over, behaviour has not changed for the better. “Before independence, people did not behave like this. There was respect of the young for the old, for the women, there was a certain honour, people kept their word. We have neglected what we had, without replacing it with anything worthy”.
“It is not enough to feed the people. After all, people can be fed in a well-kept jail. A nation which has been struggling for centuries does not deserve to be treated like this. Our people are entitled to aspire to something else -- to be adult, to be emancipated”.
Tahar Wattar: a world turned upside down.
Tahar Wattar’s strictures on post-independence Algeria are no less severe. He was born in 1936 in a small village in eastern Algeria, between Annaba and Tebessa.
Like Benhedouga, he attended a Quranic school. He went on to the school of the ulema (the religious scholars) in Constantine, and then to the Zituna, the Islamic university in Tunis. This religious education explains both authors’ perfect command of Arabic.
But while Benhedouga became a member of the MTLD (a nationalist party founded by Messali Hadj), Wattar is a former sympathiser of the Algerian Communist Party.
His novel Al-Zilzal (The Seism) also focuses on the changing Algerian city after independence. Shaikh Boularouah, threatened with the loss of his land in the agrarian reform, goes in search of long-neglected relatives among whom to distribute his land to avoid its confiscation.
He finds one who was a hero of the liberation struggle, now dead. Another is a trade union activist who has gone underground. Another is an ignoramus who has become a professor, and yet another is a wheeling and dealing officer.
Shaikh Boularouah’s search gives Tahar Wattar an opportunity to explore post-independence Constantine, anarchic and crowded with newcomers. Children stab each other for northing; a prostitute is murdered in the city centre; gangs of hooligans fight on heaps of refuse; and everywhere he goes, the shaikh is followed by a terrible smell which pervades the city.
The shaikh is a reactionary and is frightened by the convulsion which has turned the world upside down. But the seism is double-edged, says Tahar Wattar. “One can use it for the revolution and also against it. Through the novel I invite the leadership of this country to make a real revolution, a real social and political change”.
His earlier novel Al-Laz (The Ace) (1972-1974) has less literary merit but it is clearly close to Tahar Wattar’s heart because it reflects his own political convictions. It is a story which highlights the conflict between nationalists and communists during the war of liberation, and is built around a true episode.
Some 10 years before most other writers, Tahar Wattar was raising some of the more difficult questions about this period. In a book of short stories published in Bagdad in 1974, he highlights the inconvenience of “martyrs” -- a theme also treated by the Algerian writer Mouloud Mammeri, but in a rather different way.
A young moudjahid, thought to be dead, writes to his father that he is coming home. The consternation this provokes in the village, among those for whom his return would be embarrassing, drives his father to suicide.
Tahar Wattar laughingly denies that he was ahead of his time. rather, he says, he was on time. “I used to tell myself that I was a kind of Don Quixote, not because I fight windmills but because I am on my own”.
His next book will be called The Grey Hills. The theme is the physical and moral ageing of the leaders and militants he has known since 1954. The word for “grey” in Arabic can also mean “ashes”. “We have a proverb which says “After the fire, the ashes”. But I will keep the details for the novel”.
(The Middle East magazine, April 1984)
Umm Qasr, Iraq