Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Amara Lakhous - Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

"I Arabise the Italian and Italianise the Arabic." Amara Lakhous.

Amara Lakhous was born in Algiers, in 1970. He writes in Italian now, but he wrote his first novel(s) in Arabic. His first novel was published in Italy as a bilingual edition (Le Cimici e Il Pirata - the Bug and the Pirate). He is Kabyle and polyglot (Kabyle, Arabic, French, Italian) and currently based in Rome.

He studied Philosophy in Algiers and emigrated in Italy, Rome, in 1995.  Of his leaving Algeria he said "I was tired of waiting for my murderers".  Another Black Decade, or red Decade, exilé.  

In Italy, he earned a second degree in Cultural Anthropology, writing about Muslim-Arab immigrants in Italy and this is may have given birth to this second novel.

Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio was published in 2006 in Italy and was published in translation in English in 2008 as Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (translation by Ann Goldstein).  Clahs of civilizations is a revised version of an earlier book that had been released in 2003 in Algeria and Lebanon, and was then titled As you breastfeed the wolf, you feel it biting you (Come farti allattare dalla lupa senza che ti morda).


Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio tells of how the other is viewed, and how the other views himself or herself.  

The characters are tenants in a building on Piazza Vittorio.  Each in turn recount how he or she has met the neighbours and the residents living around the Piazza.  Each character's chapter is titled "The truth according to... ", a polyphonic narration that engages the reader with the truth of a story.

" 'Are we doomed to be alone at the origins of truth?' 
I said to myself that the word 'truth' must always be accompanied by a question mark or an exclamation point or a parenthesis, or quotation marks, never a period."

All narrations are linked to one event, and each narrator comments on it: a murder has been committed in their elevator, and the person they thought to be their kindest neighbour Amadeo is accused of it. 

In between these characters' recollections of the days before the rapist Lorenzo Manfredini was murdered, there are 'Wails'.  These wails are extracts from someone's diary.  Slowly the reader realises to whom this diary belongs and what these revelations mean in relation to the murder.  

These wails are those of an Algerian immigrant, haunted by the bloodshed he witnessed in Algeria not so long ago.

"Is telling stories useful? We have to tell stories to survive. Damn memory! Memory is the rock of Sisyphus."

While discussing, in many voices, subjects as deeply affecting and traumatising as poverty, prejudice, racism, rape, murder, immigration, and integration, Lakhous remains tender towards his characters and empathetic towards his fellow human being. He remains humourous, trilingually so.  

His latest novel, published in English in March 2012 (in the UK) is called 'Divorce Islamic Style', also translated by Ann Goldstein.

Want an audio-bite? You can listen to this fun NPR podcast about Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator.

For a link to Lakhous' other books HERE.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Boualem Sansal on France Culture: Controlling of the Question Mark

Boualem Sansal gave a radio interview to France Culture on 21 of June (2012) HERE, in part to talk about the kerfuffle of visiting Israel and the hypocritical Gulf states’ attempt to block his winning the Prize for the Arab Novel as a punishment for that visit.

Anyways, in the last part of the interview Sansal speaks of the upcoming celebrations on 5th July in Algeria, organised for the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence.  His comments are quite insightful.  Sansal says:

“We are now in 2012 and the question must be put: will the conditions imposed for security reasons enable a popular celebration or will we remain stuck to the old format of a State celebration.

“Up until the 90s, when the 5th of July was celebrated it was an official celebration, a little like the 14th of July if you like, on the Champs Elysees, that’s how it was… People participated sure, some voluntarily but others… well they were kind of forced to…

“We had begun to be fed up with this soviet-type scenario, we wanted a popular celebration when in fact it was a military parade.

“So what will the Pouvoir organise today?  We do not know.

“I think that they feel the 50th could give rise to debates that they will not be able to control.

“Because the debates that did not take place in 1962 could happen this 5th of July.  What did we fight for? For a military regime ? For independence and if so what independence ? For freedom ? If so what freedom ? Islamic freedom ? Freedom in the universal sense of the term ? For equality ? Why did we fight?

“These questions should have been treated in the first months after independence and should have led to a real constitutional draft and to real elections that never happened.

“We will have to ask them one day, during the 50th, the 60th, the 70th, or the centenary but we will have to ask them.”

(the original in French is below)

What Sansal highlights is that a national debate on the independence never occurred. That’s a well-known fact of course, and does not mean that this debate hasn’t occurred among individuals in some degree.  But on the national level a steel thumb has been keeping the very formulation of these questions tightly regulated.

What I find most relevant - in this beyond-credible, ridiculous situation that no programme for the celebrations is known to this day when there remains only two weeks to go – is the Pouvoir’s attempt to control the question mark.  Yes, the question mark.

The Pouvoir, by controlling the question mark, controls the punctuation of Algerian’s and Algeria’s historical and modern narrative. 

French :
« Nous sommes en 2012 la question se pose:

« Est-ce que les conditions sécuritaires permettent une célébration populaire ou est-ce qu’on va rester dans l’ancien schéma et une célébration d’état…

« Jusque dans les années 90s, le 5 juillet était célébré, c’était une célébration officielle un peu comme le 14 juillet là, les champs-Elysées, voilà c’était ça,

« Le peuple y participait oui … certains volontairement d’autres …  on leur forçait un peu la main aussi.

« On commençait à en avoir marre de ce cinéma à la soviétique, on voulait une fête populaire et en fait c’était un défilé militaire.

« Que peut faire le pouvoir aujourd’hui, on ne le sait pas.

« Je crois qu’ils sentent que le 50eme anniversaire pourrait ouvrir sur des débats qu’ils ne pourraient pas contrôler.  Parce que les débats que nous n’avons pas eus en 1962 pourraient se faire ce 5 juillet.  Nous nous sommes battus pour quoi ? Pour un régime militaire, pour l’indépendance ? Quelle indépendance ? Pour la liberté ? Quelle liberté ?

« La liberté islamiste ? La liberté au sens universel du mot ? Pour l’Egalité ? Pourquoi on s’est battu ?

« Ces questions qui auraient du être traitées les premiers mois après l’indépendance et conduire à une véritable constituante et de vraies élections et qui n’ont jamais eues lieu,

« Il faudra bien les faire un jour, au 50eme, au 60eme, au 70eme, au 100eme ? mais il faudra le faire… »

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Aziz Chouaki - the Star of Algiers

Aziz Chouaki is an Algerian novelist and playright who writes in French.  Born in 1951. Translated in English, notably The Star of Algiers (L'étoile d'Alger) published in French in 2002 by Editions Balland, its translation in 2005 by Grayworld Press.

Two translators worked on the English version of The Star of Algiers : Ros Schwartz, who specialises in translating French fiction, and Lulu Norman who specifically translates North African authors.  This is the best translation of a North African francophone author that I have come across so far and this must be due to two minds peering over the draft from their own speciality's perspective.

I've just finished reading it and it has torn my soul to pieces, as every time I read novels from Algerian authors writing about Algeria. It's just so damn raw and real and tender and gutwrenching and honourable and humane and alive and....  Algerian fiction is closer to first-hand witness accounts of the modern history of the country, in effect recording Algerian's modern history (to one day be able to make sense of the events? to lick collective wounds?) than about an individual's reflection, between cool and distant, of the human condition.  This novel is an integral part of the account of Algeria's trajectory.

The story : young kabyle, singer, 12 brother and sisters, live in 3 rooms for 14 people, he has high ambitions of making it in show business and he's truly gifted so he should. But it's 1991 and "all that remains of the oued are his stones."

You can find reviews of the Star of Algiers in English HERE and excerpts of the book HERE

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On the Steps of Cervantes in Algiers - Waciny Laredj

On the Steps of Cervantes in Algiers (2008) is a discussion in Arabic - with a French translation next to it - by Waciny Laredj on Algeria's past and present, the development of the Algerian novel.... and Cervantès.  It reads as a reflection on the Algerian collective-self.  I have it tagged for my next next reading but from the first two pages I was struck by the following.  Let me translate (emphasis in the text are my own) :

"Chance, sometimes, works things well; unfortunately, men don't manage as much.  In the second century and the tenth century, Algeria saw the emergence and the passage of two emblematic figures: Lucius Apulée and Miguel de Cervantès.  Both founders of an atypical genre: the novel.  Their texts are foundation stones, 'The Golden Ass' and 'Don Quichotte', who were born fully or partially on Algerian soil, altered the face of literature on a universal scale.  However, this is never spoken of in Algerian's schools, the ideal place for the transmission of knowledge, as if memory was a place of suffering that one should inevitably get rid oneself of."


"Four centuries after his death (he died on 23 April 1616 in Madrid), Cervantes reflects our image back to us and reflects it back to our memory.  It is no possible to comprehend the depth of a culture, of a people, of an ideal without understanding the spirit which moves it, the soul which feeds it from within, gives it strength and substance and shapes its future aims."

 "Today, and refraining from being too much of an alarmist, we quickly come to the realisation of having wasted a past, which is recoverable only with great difficulty, for an Algeria which is just being born.  Drifts are numerous, fallouts incalculable and the culture is ill-digested.  What has become of these outstanding individuals, the ones who passed through or the natives, who made Algeria's intellectual bliss, who turned Algeria into a crossroad of cultures and colours? Apulee? Saint Augustin? Cervantes? Ibn Khaldoun? Sidi Boudienne al-andalousi? Delacroix? Isabelle Eberhardt? Albert Camus and so many others?  A history truly to meditate and an amnesic practice to analyse so in order to never reproduce it again."         

I'm a bit bummed to see Camus mentioned (over and over again but not by Laredj only) but that glitch aside, Laredj underlines some perceptive and corner points on how Algeria's collective memory is being affected by a trend (unqualified as yet in the pages I've read so far) to alter history by ... essentially not speaking.  That is how I read it.  The transmission of one's history, or at least one's story, is achieved orally, through speaking.  This was definitely the case for an Algerian culture which is oral at its foundation and tribal in its strucutre.

What I see or rather hear, and therefore do not hear, is the silence that reigns over certain matters.  I mean a silence in orality not in writing.  Algerian authors, and particularly novelists and poets (it is my belief that historians are useless or rather useful only to the instituted canon)  are very out-written, to avoid saying outspoken, since they record and resist in writing.

What I find particularly striking in my 'Algerian readings' so to speak-write, is that Algerians interrogate their present and history on a collective plane but there are no examinations of the individual, by an individual, for an individual if you see what I mean. The exegesis of the modern Algerian experience is being undertaken as a 'we'.  

What about the I?  Where is the nombril? I am searching for the 'individual', possibly dual, for an Algerian eye, although I'll settle for a belly-button.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Waciny Laredj

Waciny Laredj's Les Fantômes de Jérusalem [The ghosts of Jerusalem].

This novel looks like it is this author's latest translated novel to have appeared in French.  It was out on 4 May 2012 published by Actes Sud.  Cant' wait to get my hands on it, definitely my next read after Aziz Chouaki.

Waciny Laredj (al-3aradj الأعرج ) is a contemporary Algerian novelist who writes in Arabic.  Born in 1954. He has been translated in French quite widely but no English. I mean NONE (that I can find).  Darn it, can someone please translate him into English!

The fantastic ArabLit blog compiled an excellent profile for him HERE.

Algerian temper you say?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Photo: Kabylie embodied

"Children, I come back today
To tell you a story of the long dark way
That I had to climb, that I had to know
In order that the race might live and grow.
Look at my face — dark as the night —
Yet shining like the sun with love's true light"

Langston Hughes

Hughes' poem is not suited in full to the picture, but you should know about it all the same. HERE.

Photo via Radio Trottoir HERE on FB this morning. A thought for my 'olive groves' .

#Algeria Tatoo me a dream : I want to live

I just came upon this on Twitter via @sissinettedk

Notice the photo caption :


(couldn't quite catch the name of the photographer...)


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Zeinab Laouedj - Algerian poet

Algerian poet Zeinab Laouedj was born in 1954, in Maghnia (Tlemcen).  She writes in Arabic and is translated in French (all be it seldom). I have not found her translated in English.

The latest French translation of her work I've found is in this collection of texts by Algerian writers and poets called Paroles d'Algériens : Ecrire pour résister dans l'Algerie du XXè Siècle (2003).

In the above collection, you can find her poem 'Le Palmier' [The Palm Tree] dedicated to Abdelkader Alloua, the Algerian playwright assassinated on 10 March 1994, and to the poet Youcef Sebti assassinated on 27 December 1993:

"Mon pays
My country
Je suis un Lion
I am a Lion
Et je vous ferai trembler
And I will make you tremble
Jusque dans vos forêts
As far as your forests
Moi le Fou
Me, the Crazed
Fou par amour de sa patrie
Mad for the love of his land
Où nul fou
Where no other madman
Ne me ressemble
Resembles me

Est grande
Stands tall
Ne peut
La contenir ...
Contain it…

La terre tourne
The earth revolves
Même allongé
Even when lain


The soil
De la terre."
Of the earth.
Zineb Laouedj 

(Eng. trans. by Nadia Ghanem)

Zeinab Laouedj is married to Algerian novelist Waciny Laredj.  If you are in Algiers, you can find her poetry collections in the Librairie du Tiers-Monde (at the very bottom of the "Algerian Lit in Arabic" section, at the very back of the "poetry in Algerian" section , above the dust).