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.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Literary Awards and Prizes in Algeria

Several lit prizes have begun to (re)emerge over the last two to three years in Algeria. Here are three new prizes I've come across looking to recompense and support our very own Algerian lit.


The Assia Djebbar Prize for the Best Novel

This year will mark the first award of the Assia Djebbar prize for the Best Novel. The prize was created by ANEP [the National House for Publishing and Publicity] in March 2015, in memory of Assia Djebbar and her legacy to literature - the prolific Algerian author and member of the prestigious French Academy passed away on 6 February 2015.

The AD prize will reward an Algerian novel written in Arabic, French or Tamazight. The AD award will be given during SILA, Algiers' International Bookfair. SILA opens its massive doors every year for a week. This year it will run from 29 October to 7 November. 2015 marks its 20th edition.

The Best Fantastique genre Short Story

The Prize for the Best Fantastique genre Short Story was created last year, in 2014, by the French Institute in Algeria. in partnership with BNP Paribas and Media Plus editions. The prize aims to reward the best Sci-Fi, horror or fantasy short story, written in French,  and wants to promote young authors. The winner is awarded 200.000 DA.  10 short stories are selected, and once the winner is announced, they are all published in an anthology - where the winner's story appears first. Each short is submitted on the basis of a theme that the French Institute has selected.

In 2014, the theme was Nuptials.

In 2014, the prize was awarded to Assia Bougherra for her short story Conte insolite et noces fantastiques [Unusual and fantastic wedding tales]. See here the list of the other 10 winners. For its first edition, the jury had received 111 short stories.

In 2015, the theme was Climate(s).


2015 marked the second edition of the Prize. The Best Fantastique genre Short Story was « les carnets du Wasteland » [Notes from the Wasteland] by Walid SIDI SAÏD. Here is the list of the soon to be published stories and authors for this year.

The anthology and its authors will be present during SILA also.

The Literary Stopovers Prize Algeria (Prix Escales Litteraires)

This Literary Stopovers takes place in several countries, hence its title Stopover. It was created by Sofitel hotels (Accor Group), and operates in Algeria in partnership with the European Union delegation in Algeria since 2013. Each year, 8 novels (written in French) are selected.

Intially, the prize aimed to award a "Best First Novel" and a "Best Confirmed Author". During the second edition, the award titles changed somewhat and are now set as the Prix Escale, and the Crush of the Jury (Le coup de coeur).
2013 marked the year of this prize's first edition. Algerian Habib Ayyoub in the "Confirmed novelist" category, was awarded for Le Remonteur d’horloge [The Clock Winder] (Barzakh eds., 2012), and Sarah Haidar won the "Best First novel" category for her Virgules en Trombe [Commas' whirlwind] (Apic eds, 2013) (she had already published two novels in Arabic, Commas' whilwind is her first in French. Here is a list of the other selected novelists.

In 2014, the Prix Escale was given to Kamel Daoud for his Meursault contre enquête. The Crush was given to Mohamed Magani for his novel Rue des perplexes [Perplexed Street] (Chihab eds, 2013). See here for other selected novels.

This year, the Prix Escale was given to Leïla Hamoutène for her novel Le châle de Zeineb [Zeineb's shawl] and the Crush was given to Youcef Tounsi his novel Face au silence des eaux [Before waters' silence] (APIC eds, 2014). See here for the 2015 other selected novelists.  

Other prizes

There are supposed to be other Literature Prizes in Algeria.
MnarviDZ in his comment below gives further and very useful information on other literary prizes that once were and still are:

"There was the Librarians' award (dunno what it's become of it), and Mosteghanemi's Malek Haddad which stopped because, they say, the animosity between Mosteghanemi and former minister of culture, Khalida Messaoudi. Apuleius Of madauros prize stopped when Amin Zaoui left the BNA, and Moufid Zakaria award (poetry) stopped after Tahar Ouettar's death. So basically none is/was really an institution as they depend on the man/woman who started them.

I believe the Ali Maachi prize is still alive. And I think I read that Azzeddine Mihoubi would relaunch the Mohamed Dib Award but I cannot find the article."

The Mohammed Dib prize, was launched in 2001 and gave a prize every two years. The last Mohammed Dib prize was supposed to have been given in 2014, it was then pushed back to May 2015 due to lack of funds and has not been heard of again.  There also seems to be a Best Novel Prize but I haven't yet found information on it yet than a mention.

Now, the big question is: are there Literature prizes that award Algerian literature (specifically written) in  Arabic today ? And what about Kabyle !

Sunday, 18 October 2015

L'ane mort by Chawki Amari - Book Review

Do you know Algerian novelist Chawki Amari? Have you heard of his latest novel The Dead Donkey (L'ane mort)? Here's my review of this novel, his latest, and a general overview of Amari's work on ArabLit: New Algerian Fiction: Up a Mountain with a Donkey in the Trunk.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Les Pirates du Desert by Zehira Houfani - Book Review

Les pirates du désert (Pirates of the desert) is a detective novel, written by Algerian author Zehira Houfani. Houfani was born in 1952 in Kabylie (M'kira). She moved to Canada in 1994 and continues writing.

Zehira Houfani published her first novel Le Portrait du disparu [Portrait of a missing person] in 1984, with ENAL eds. Then came Les pirates du desert (ENAL, 1986), followed by L’Incomprise [A woman misunderstood] in 1989 (ENAL). Since then, Houfani seems to have only published non-fiction. Her latest book Jenan, la condamnée d’Al-Mansour [Jenan, the convict of Al-Mansour] was published in 2008 and recounts the bombings she experienced while working in Iraq for an NGO.

Les pirates du désert (Pirates of the desert) is a light, and entertaining detective story set in Tamanrasset where Omrane, the political representative of the Algerian government there, is trying his utmost to stop crime in Tam, but to no avail. A gang has rapidly grown from small time rackets to large-scaled and well-planned illegal operations. It has now created a parallel market in the area, over which it rules. All the agents Omrane has sent after the gang have died in suspicious circumstances, and he begins to suspect that someone is sabotaging every one of his counter-operations. He writes to the authorities in Algiers, who know the illegal trade is not only affecting Tamanrasset but is a widespread phenomenon quickly swallowing up all of Algeria. 

They are quick in responding and send him super star Special Agent Salem. Salem together with Omrane's top detective Taibi, go after the gang to find out who are its members, to uncover the identity of the one they call the Mayor.
Salem and Taibi turn out to be more lucky than intelligent. It is because they scare Wahiba out of her wits that they are able to get all the information they need for proofs and arrests. They don't torture Wahiba, she's smart and knows when she's been cornered. Besides, Salem, her interrogator, is just too good looking to resist.

The story is told in very innocent terms even though we're dealing with criminal activities. These activities remain untold in fact although something to do with trucks is mentioned. Only the character of Wahiba hints at what crime actually entails. Wahiba is a madame who began to work for the gang so that she could come out of the prostitution world into which poverty had condemned her years before. Tamanrasset is portrayed as a place where profiteering is as rife as the poverty it creates, and this is forcing people to chose between starving or theft. 

The innocence and lightness of this detective novel makes me think of Enyd Blyton's Famous Five stories. Great for teens - although the Algerian novelist Chawki Amari says in Algeria we're teenagers until 50. But then again, many Algerian detective stories were written in that innocent and unoffending way, and even some today.

At this moment in my readings, Houfani is the first woman writer I have come across to have published a detective novel in Algeria. She seems to be the woman pioneer in the genre.

For more DZ detective novels, see Algerian Detective Story Writers' Top 10.