Wednesday, 30 December 2015

How I smoked all my books - by Fatma Zohra Zamoum

While sex, drugs and pizzas have been stable story elements in Algerian novels over the past decade (for pizzas, read Chawki Amari), a prominent place given to smoking seems relatively new to me in our fiction as far as my readings go. Algerian novelist Fatma Zohra Zamoum has given an amusing and original twist to this ever present, highly enjoyed, and deadly social activity.

Read the full review on Arabic Literature in English.

Monday, 30 November 2015

La fin qui nous attend - Ryad Girod

Just discovered Algerian author Ryad Girod and his second novel The end that awaits us (La Fin qui nous attend), a novel set during an earthquake, published in French, in November 2015 by Barzakh editions. If you read French, here's my review of the book on Huff Post Algeria : "La Fin qui nous attend" de Ryad Girod.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Supporting and Promoting Algerian Literature

In order to try to support and promote Algerian literature and its contemporary production, and to attempt to give it some visibility in English, I just created the FB page Litt DZ to help anyone interested in Algerian literature find out what gets published here.

FB : LitDZ
Twitter : @Litt_DZ

The Women of Algeria's Folktales

Interested in Algerian myths and legends ? Here is a discussion around Zoubeida Mameria’s three-volume collection of Algerian myths, Tales from the Land of Algeria (Contes du Terroir Algerien, 2013) on Arabic Literature in English.

* * * * *

I am sitting on the steps outside my flat with Zoubeida Mameria’s weighty three-volume collection of Algerian myths, Tales from the Land of Algeria (Contes du Terroir Algerien, 2013) on my lap. I am browsing through her collection, looking for a story involving plumbers.

Mameria is from the central Algerian city of Souk Ahras and so, she says, are her stories. She warns in her introduction that she has chosen to recount “in an impressionistic manner” the tales her granddad and great aunts used to tell her. She qualifies her storytelling as impressionistic because she has not recorded the stories she was told. Instead, she is recrafting stories that she considers Algerian but that also “may be known in other versions under different skies.”

I wonder if the plumber will work on my kitchen in an impressionistic manner.

Myths and their skilled-workers 

A pipe burst in my upstairs neighbor’s bathroom. If it hadn’t been for the plaster ceiling suddenly falling off, and for water bursting forth out of electricity plug holes, we’d never have known. My landlady had just pocketed my upfront three-months rent. Bad timing for a catastrophe.
Hibba, my landlady, has been suffering from “severe mood swings”; that’s how she calls dodging the expenditure of any money to repair the flat I’m renting from her. Her husband passed away a few months ago. I dial her mobile number, she picks up:
Tifla! How are you? How’s your family? You know if you need anything, you just call me, right!
– Hibba, the ceiling’s falling off…
– I’m practically in the car, I have to leave Algiers. It’s the stress, the four months’ mourning now turned into seven, the traffic jams, the white and blue paint replaced by black and white on Didouche Mourad Street… (She starts sobbing.) I’ll deal with this as soon as I’m back.
The line goes dead. She’s turned off her phone.

Malika, my tiny upstairs neighbour, opens her door wide. She tips her head and looks at me as if I were wearing a pink school blouse.
– You’re the sister of Hibba’s husband, right?
– Nope, but I do live downstairs from you in Hibba’s flat. There’s a flood in my kitchen. It probably comes from a burst pipe in your bathroom?
– That’s impossible. My husband, Allah yerhemu, did the plumbing himself before he died.
– He was a plumber?
– No, but he replaced the main pipe himself at his own cost. (Her eyes start watering.) He died of a heart attack years later.

Malika is also widowed, as is Azziza on the ground floor and Lilia on the third.
Attirhem rebbi, maybe the pipe that burst wasn’t one he worked on?

She reluctantly accompanies me downstairs.

She comes in, looks up, presses her cheeks with her two hands and squeezes her mouth into a Yemma! which translates as Oh.
– Oh! It’s going to fall off! she says, pointing upwards.
– Malika, before it falls off, you should call a plumber…

I never heard her replying no. She’d run off.

I call in on Lilia, my landlady’s sister who lives on the third floor. She lets me in, pours me coffee, and lets me curse her sibling while she chain smokes. Lilia doesn’t want to call the plumber either, but she knows she’s cornered.
-What did Malika tell you?
She said her husband did the plumbing and the dead aren’t guilty… Has anyone done any plumbing in her flat recently?
-Yes, Abdu. He lives in the building next door. He changed Malika’s bath last spring.

Lilia picks up her phone and dials Abdu, the neighbour who’s really just a kind and cheerful guy with a propane torch.

Who will not call the plumber first is a demented race that requires inflexibility and resolve. Its aim is obvious: a form of counter-insurgency against the bill. The one who calls first is the one who will pay for that job, and for every successive one after that, because a plumber’s work is never finished, as we all know.

Good plumbers exist only in myths. And, when you consider Algerian myths, it is no surprise. Most of our stories are inhabited by skilled-worker families.

Continue reading here.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Monday, 2 November 2015

#SILA2015 - The Glory and the Mystery of Algeria’s 20th International Book Fair

Algiers' International Bookfair, SILA, is now open until 7 November. Here are some highlights to be found on Arabic Litterature (in English):

  SILA 2015 

On October 25, SILA’s commissioner held a press conference to both publicize this year’s book fair and to highlight some important — and some strange — information on the event’s forthcoming scope and structure.

Communicating the details of one of Africa’s largest book fairs just a few days before opening might seem last-minute, but it does have the merit of building up excitement and a thoroughly enjoyable chaos in a nation where last-minute always leaves us ample time to arrive late anyway.

Continue reading here ....

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Complot a Alger by Ahmed Gasmia - Book Review

Yacine and Adel are two old friends on their way to work. Yacine, the dreamer of the two, works for a museum in Algiers about to get closed because of lack of funds. He is on his way to a difficult meeting with the museum director, Mr Yousfi, an old and gentle man desperately trying to save the museum. Adel, always cautious and down to earth, works in a bank and promises to try and think of something that might raise some funds.

The two friends meet after work to go and grab a bite to eat but Yacine receives a phonecall from Yousfi who asks him to come urgently. The Minister of Culture's decision regarding the museum's affairs is about to fall: it will be closed and not even a private venture can save it. Yacine and Adel make their way to the museum, where Yacine goes off to meet with Yousfi, while Adel waits for them and wanders off in the various private rooms usually closed to public view.

He enters a fully furnished medieval style bedroom, hangs his coat on a hook off the wall, and lies down to rest on the massive four-poster bed. As he drifts off, his coat comes smashing down on the floor. Too heavy, it brought the ancient hook down and leaves a gapping hole. Adel is thoroughly embarrassed and wonders what to do when he notices something inside the cavity. He grapples with what seems to be a box and pulls it out. He finds two stones and a vial. As he opens the vial, a little cloud of dust is let loose, and when it falls onto the two stones, something completely unexpected occurs: the stones shine a green light that slowly grows and reveals The Gate. The Gate cracks open and sucks Adel into another time: 17th century Algiers.

Mansour, the Dey of Algiers, manipulated by his Commander-in-chief Abass, has just imprisoned his beloved cousin, Sheikh Hisham, accusing him of plotting murder against his person. Little does the Dey know that Abass is the culprit and that he has a much grander plan than to set Sheikh Hisham aside. He wants to be Dey and is about to murder Mansour during the yearly celebration of his kingship. As Adel is propulsed into time and into the same room, the Dey's former castle, he hears Abass conspire and knows the exact details of the murder to come.

Will the Dey believe Adel? Will Sheikh Hisham aided by his faithful men escape prison? Will The Gate open again and let Adel come back to 20th century Algiers? Will Yacine find the money to save his beloved museum?

Conspiracy in Algiers (Complot a Alger) is Ahmed Gasmia's first novel. It is not a detective novel per se but only incorporate elements of the genre. Gasmia's latest, and second, Shadow 67 (Ombre 67) is a novel that directly fits the detective novel genre. 

As for Shadow 67, Gasmia has found inspiration in Algeria's medieval past. I record it here because in Conspiracy in Algiers, Gasmia weaves an element into his story that I haven't come across too many times before elsewhere in early 2000 Algerian literary production (not so far in my readings at any rate): it is sci-fi or fantasy. Time-travel is central to this novel, and magic gives the story life. I've only encountered Sci-fi once before, in a work entirely built on science-fiction, by the pioneer of the genre in Algeria, and a woman at that: Safia Ketou and her Mauve Planet.

Complot à Alger is an enjoyable read, although it is a story for children or young adults at most. This novel, as with Shadow 67, is written with much chastity and innocence, a trait specific to 70s and early 80s Algerian detective novels. I'm pretty certain that although Gasmia published it in 2006 and 2007, he'd written it at least a decade ago. If I ever meet him, I'll ask!

#SILA2015 - Highlights before Opening Day

The 20th edition of Algiers’ International Book Fair is about to open its doors for a week between 29 October to 7 November. During a press conference held on 25 October to help publicise the event - and which was live-tweeted - #SILA2015’s Commissioner, M. Hamidou Messaoudi, communicated some important, and some strange, information on the event’s scope and structure.

Here are some press conference highlights. 


The guest of honour this year is France, who is said to have invited a number of high flying speakers, and has organised a special series of activities to mark its very own special edition. 53 countries in all will participate to the event, and 25 thousand titles will be made available. Priority has been given to new releases we are told, and to university and scientific publications. The Commissioner highlighted that, this year, 54% of exhibitors are Algerians, possibly in comparison to a majority of foreigners in previous years or to comfort public opinion that this is an ‘Algerian owned’ event. The commissioner also added that foreign exhibitors have been limited to 200 copies per book – limited to importing and selling presumably. Algerian exhibitors are under no limitations or restrictions.  910 publishing houses will take part in this edition, 10% less than last year. The reduction is said to be due to a breach in regulations committed by previous participants.  The rule possibly invoked as breached is that unsold books must be returned and declared within 48h.


SILA 2015’s budget has been cut down by half because of austerity measures now implemented by the government in all areas, not just culture. These budget cuts will seriously hit the cultural scene from 2016. Cultural analyst Ammar Kessab discussed the impact of budget reductions in his recent analysis where he announces that the budget for culture has gone down from 437 million dollars in 2015 to 167 million dollars in 2016, a 63% collapse.

Accessing SILA will remain free and open to all.  The organisers had played with the idea of introducing an entry fee this year, but the sheer number of participants expected is too large to make this a manageable option. And that’s a good thing. Books are expensive enough as it is.

A ‘special delegation’ will be dispatched to patrol book stands to check that no book incites to hatred or racism. No criteria for what might class as such has yet been announced.  Another patrol will do its rounds to control that no theft is committed. The entire fair will further be put under custom control.

The Assia Djebbar Prize for the best novel in French, Arabic or Tamazight will be given during a ceremony held on 4th November. No short or long list the jury might have selected has been communicated to the public yet.

Special Spaces and Places
A space will be reserved for children, children literature hopefully, and not just amusement.  No comic books will be present, FIBDA, the yearly Comic Books Festival in Algiers, is deemed sufficient enough to promote the genre. A special reference was made to the Panaf’ spirit for which a special area will be opened. No indication as to what this might mean has been given yet. It is also promised that literature in Tamazight has been given special thought and a special place. Tifinagh features prominently on SILA’s poster for once.

The language question
With France as guest of honour, no doubt books in French will massively be made available, as is the case every year in fact. In a country where a majority naturally reads, writes and jokes in several languages, what space will literature in Arabic and Tamazight be given? 

SILA could be a wonderful place for literature in translation. From 53 languages into another 53 in theory at least.

But in reality, in what langue will these 53 countries, Algeria among them, promote their literature? For 7 days, will the world be turned into a French translation?
We’ll have to see won’t we!

Follow SILA on twitter @SILAAlger with the hashtag #SILA2015, and on FB here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Adel s'emmele by Salim Aissa - Book Review

Adel s'emmêle [Adel gets entangled] is Algerian novelist Salim Aissa’s second detective novel. It was published in 1988 by ENAL editions. His first was Mimouna, published the year before in 1987. I've found no information about who Salim Aissa is, and found no other books published by him after these two, and what a shame that is. Adel s'emmele is one of the best Algerian detective novels of the 80s I've read. By that I mean it is (finally) a detective story written for adults, it doesn't have the (excruciating) excess of wisecracks, no adjectival abusem its narrative is tight and flows (great editing for once). And crime is not glazed over.

Adel is a bullheaded police inspector who works in Algiers, a chaotic capital in which crime abounds. There, further injustice is created daily by a lethargic public system in which all involved are corrupted. In an environment that is becoming increasingly aggressive and violent, Adel and his colleagues, Chelli a woman inspector, and Dahmane the trainee, are doing their best to remain sane and focused, so as to solve crimes. Not for their personal glory or for promotion but out of a genuine concern for the victims.

After being scolded by tough but fair Superintendent Naamane, Adel is given a strange case. A young girl, Amal Ghanem, has been found dead in her studio. Her neighbour on the floor below had smelt a gas leak and the fire brigade was called. When they realised Amal's flat was the source, firemen smashed in the kitchen-windows and came in. They cut off the gas, enter the flat and find Amal, dead by asphyxia, lying on her bed completely dressed with her shoes on. When Adel and Chelli are called on the scene, they sense something's not quite right. They search the flat and find a tape on which Amal states she’s decided to commit suicide. They also find her diary in which she records her thoughts in cryptic form. It is the scribble "Villa, mariage, poor Dounia, P7, C3, HG" in this diary that catches Adel's attention, and makes him decide against submitting a suicide report. Instead he embarks on a murder investigation. 

Amal was born in France of Algerian parents, and decided to come and live in Algeria to work in the music industry. Since her arrival, she had settled well, and worked in a small music studio owned by Boudri, a very wealthy Algerian business man, a former hero of Algeria's war of independence, who now mostly lives in France.

Boudri's character troubles Adel who can't quite pinpoint why. Boudri's secretary, Faiza has worked for him for five years but her blatant aversion for the man makes Adel suspect he's onto something a lot darker than a mere single murder.  

In this crime novel, Salim Aissa pictures Algiers in the 80s. He speaks about a complex reality full of dynamite situations and their dire consequences such as the growth of poverty in the city during that period, prostitution rings and a sex trade that increasingly targetted young girls and trapped them into its net by entrapment and rape, Algeria's colonial past and all its fake war heroes, the transit-roads of hard-drugs via Algeria’s borders (during the former Paris-Dakar), forms of resistance in a system entirely gangrened and collapsing, sexual harassment against women, and a kind of street machismo becoming generalised and slowly changing from abnormal to normal and acceptable behaviour.

There are many women in Aissa's novel, and he portrays Algerian women, young and old, with a sensitive and compassionate pen, they are never weak. And fight back.

An altogether enjoyable detective novel.

If this novel were a movie, it would be a cousin to Omar Gatlato, Merzak Allouache’s awesome (and traumatising) film.