From the Archives: Safia Ketou, the First Algerian Sci-fi Novelist of Post-independence Algeria

Then, she pushed on a button hidden under the table.  As soon as she did so, the calming sound of sea waves and seagulls could be heard.  The atmosphere relaxed. The Mauve Planet

By Safia Ketou

Translated by Nadia Ghanem

Ryad and Alym checked the flight deck of their space shuttle Faiza 7 together. Having left the plane to the care of technicians, the three of them entered the place via elevator stairs. The two men opened their eyes wide and exclaimed in unison:

– What! A few exclamations were heard. – But who teaches you the basics? – Why not? Because I love my people, I want to thank them before I die. Upon hearing this evasive answer, Ryad and Alym looked at each other, not in the least bit enthusiastic about this news. exclaimed Alym, who was passionate about mechanics. – It will be a great loss for your people, Alym sympathized. ***

When they woke, the two men realized they had been moved to a bedroom with two beds. The mysterious voice immediately explained:

– We know every language. We can also be present and assist to any interplanetary conference. Seeing that his friend was taking this humourlessly, Ryad tapped him on the shoulder and calmly said:

– You are so credulous Alym, you take everything I say at face value. The leader of the XYRYX heaved a long sigh and proceeded:

– Death is nigh. – Yes, agreed Alym, they are much better than ours. Someone must have written sci-fi in Arabic, and she or he remains to be found. They awaited further instructions almost impatiently. Immediately, Ryad did not feel like joking any longer.  He was certain at present. – It’s rational, but are you really happy? – Take the R pills also. She blushed but nonetheless replied:

– When Man 1,000 comes back from his mission, we will get married. They were both stunned. Now completely back to his usual self-control, Alym asked:

– Who are you? asked Ryad, intrigued. – No, admitted Alym. Alym had many questions. While the exterior of this rocket-palace was plain looking, its interior was delightful and welcoming, like the case of a jewel. – And what about language teaching? Alym understood that his friend was making fun of him. Now finally ready, the two astronauts waved to the commander of Base 88 and climbed in their pod. The only sound received was muddled and rustling, impossible to decipher.  The airwaves were scrambled.  He thought out loud:

– We are cut off from Earth. – And so? he snarked. He had been waiting for a signal from Faiza 7 and had sent messages to every space station with no result. The man, who wore a number 318 on his clothing, made an appeasing gesture:

– Your deviation was provoked. – Yes, agreed Alym. – Don’t be such a pessimist, begged Ryad while readjusting his perfumed pillow. While they were talking, the two men examined the place with greater attention.  They noticed several devices, the use or handling of which they did not recognize. XYRYX 318 invited them to sit down and signalled to the barman. Very relaxed, Ryad began to question his host. When they reached the bottom of the ladder, they stopped to breathe in the air and fill their lungs with the sweet breeze that played with their hair.  While waiting for instructions from the leader of planet XYRYX, the two companions exchanged their first impressions in code. They were no longer anxious. – A city that has just sprung up from the desert. – Your spaceship would wander forever in between planets, never able to land anywhere. – What is it? – Our parents. – Let us say rather that I let myself live.  And as long as there is life, there is hope. – A castle, that’s all. But when it reached 90 degrees, the main needle stabilised, and the alarm signals stopped flashing. – You are not offended? To put Ketou’s work on the map and give her name a little visibility, “The Mauve Planet” is given below in English translation. Soon after, Alym did the same, unable to resist the call of the soft pillows that sang calming melodies. Alym was waiting for this opportunity. Under her spell, they let themselves be rocked by her crystalline voice.  She was insisting:

– Do take more fruits, they are very light. In the first room, the walls were luminescent, the draperies were fragrant, and convertible furniture was set among an ultra-modern decor. And my death must not alter anything. Ryad also had questions for the young woman:

– How do marriages function here? A woman’s voice surprised the two pilots about an hour after they had freshened up:

– Would you like something to eat? – What … Alym was trying to explain but was again shaken with irrational laughter. Nothing. – Is this a proposition or an order? asked Alym. A symphony of colours charmed their dazzled eyes. – There is, yes, you will not need your helmets. – We will need all our faculties, yes. – No, my decision is made. – You have just worded the crux of the matter.  These people that I dearly love have always placed their trust in me while I was living. She was pushing a rolling table full of beautifully presented dishes from which a delicious aroma floated. It is in her collection The Mauve Planet and Other Stories that I discovered her sci-fi inclinations. – Our shuttle seems auto-guided, noticed Alym. Maybe there is a lovely XYRYX princess who has fallen in love with one of us.  She ordered her technicians to alter the trajectory our spaceship and…

Alym interrupted him:

– Stop dreaming, our reputation has not crossed to the Tenth dimension. XYRYX 1,000 translated it in these terms:

– Our leader is waiting for you. – Earthlings, do you hear me? But the worlds she imagined are not all dark, there is much light and colour to them, with tight friendships, humourous banter, and coffee and cigarettes, the two comforting companions of many a character in Algerian literature of the 1970s, transformed to pizza with olives by the novelist Chawki Amari by the 2000s. – Are there schools here? Ryad hurriedly and revealingly replied:

– No thank you. And are there divorces? The young woman came over to stop him as he was about to throw himself out of the window. Alym completed:

– Which means that we will find ourselves totally alone…

The two men looked at each other and decided together:

– We are going to leave. – The Professor? The Mauve Planet and Other Stories (La Planète Mauve et Autres Nouvelles) is a collection of short stories written by Ketou between 1962 and 1978. The two men realized they could look at the city and the fields of the Mauve Planet through enlarging glass-windows. – That’s wonderful, Ryad exclaimed, walking around the multiform machine. – Bring the earthlings to our leader. All interplanetary transmission-posts were alerted.  No information had been received on Alym and Ryad.  Finally, the astronauts’ syndicate had to make a decision. – Not at all, XYRYX 318 said. he said. She welcomed them with a lovely smile and introduced herself as their guide and interpreter.  Then she sat at the table in front of them to show them how to eat the Mauve Planet’s food. – No, we are all autodidacts.  Each one of us has a small device he can consult at any moment, anywhere. Finally, she succeeded in dissipating the anguish that had engulfed them.  With one movement of the hand, the music stopped.  She dismissed the spell and she announced:

– Here is the leader of the XYRYX. “The Mauve Planet” follows Alym and Ryad, two astronauts who board their space shuttle Faiza 7 for what appears to be a standard mission. They noticed her thin fingers were adorned with gold filaments. Alym thought he was living a nightmare. Her clothes were made of embroidered aluminum. Ryad said sarcastically, which means that…. Fear had turned to curiosity. – It’s delicious isn’t it? Ryad gave Alym a sideways look. – Yes. Our leader is not a dictator but a guide for us. I want to see the sea! The voice with no face replied:

– You are on the Mauve Planet. A physical or moral discord is a disease we treat. Having browsed through a comic strip left in the room, Ryad lay down on the air-conditioned sofa and fell instantly asleep. Frowning, the two men nodded dubiously.  To convince them, the leader added:

– Can you not see that my head is no longer visible? – There are science laboratories as well as pedagogical museums equipped with the most sophisticated tools.  You can meet the planet’s greatest scientists and go and talk to them without asking for an appointment first. – It’s a recording, isn’t it? But like St Augustine said, “Though we cannot adjust the wind we can adjust the sails.” Just kidding, St Augustine didn’t give a fig about sailing, but you know what I mean. Alym said. He said to the interpreter:

– You know, my friend Ryad is a thorough capitalist. The French Institute also runs a yearly competition for ‘best fantasy short story’, and produces an anthology that features the winner’s story and those of selected participants – volumes I could never get a hold of. he triumphantly punctuated. – What if we try to run away? Alym glared at him while smiling diplomatically to those around him. Safia Ketou committed suicide in 1989. From the Archives: Safia Ketou, the First Algerian Sci-fi Novelist of Post-independence Algeria

Back in 2018, our Algeria & Morocco Editor wrote about one of her favorite discoveries, Safia Ketou’s La Planète Mauve   et Autres Nouvelles:

By Nadia Ghanem

In six years of rummaging through Algerian literature, Safia Ketou’s sci-fi story “The Mauve Planet” remains my favorite find. said Alym

– The signals of your spaceship are scrambled.  If you turn back, you will become lost in space. – Nor do I, confessed Ryad, we will soon find out…

– You are a patient disciple of Madame Waiting. – Why should I change? Their host began to laugh:

– You are scared, he noted. The two pilots jumped from fear, their anguish now high, when a voice made their rear-microphone vibrate. Their host was taking some time to come back, so they began to smoke the nourishing-cigarettes they found. – You will remain here, the leader said. All seven ascended in an elevator that took them to the private chambers of the leader of XYRYX. – Never. – It’s tasty but, he said, but…

Not waiting to hear any more, XYRYX 318 called the waiter and the same drink was brought in larger glasses. – Ha! – It shows, she said. Ryad could no longer stand this oppressive silence.  He stood up and screamed, feeling himself go mad:

– Speak! The beauty of the place was beyond worldly imagination. Alym’s attention was suddenly drawn to his control panel.  The steering-needles had begun to move about and the ignition levers were flashing, signaling an alarm. stammered Alym. – Yes, let me explain …

He hesitated before beginning:

– Do you know that earth men become immortal when they come to this planet? XYRYX 318 was a very good driver. – Isn’t that so! Ryad asked. The two men were making their way to the main avenue of the green city as they argued. But very much shaken, Ryad exclaimed:

– The sea! Alym did not hesitate. – Yes, it’s practical, our leader frequently takes off on last minute trips. The pair had always been fond of new experiences and suspense. –  That’s astute. They looked at each other. –  It is not pessimism but realism, corrected Alym. Ryad asked. They took off their space suits, left their respective pods, and crossed the barrier that lead them to the exit. And as he spoke, the rolling engine stopped neatly before the two surprised men who exclaimed:

– With no driver! – The theory is defensible, but if I must give you some advice, don’t believe in fairy stories. Sternly he said:

– I will stop you. At this very instant, the leader of the XYRYX decided to be firm. said Alym. Take that! The two men began to walk on the mauve sand, spread as far as the eye could see. – It’s inconceivable! Berber folktales are also omnipresent, with protagonists who must never forget their manners and absolutely avoid rudeness, even when they are tried by extraterrestrial hosts with a taste for kidnap. In a measured tone, he spoke to the room in these terms:

– We are earthlings and we have arrived on your planet by accident. Ketou is probably the first contemporary Algerian novelist to have written science-fiction in French. The first part of the voyage went smoothly.  The galaxies’ splendid hues and their shimmer filled the screen with scintillating poetry. After talking with each other, the guards signalled to the soldiers who were immobile and standing very straight.  Promptly, they abandoned their military posture and searched the newcomers before letting them cross what was for them a threshold toward mystery. Alym and Ryad went around the room, face to face with previously unimaginable objects. My personality doesn’t vary according to my residence. Ryad saw such anguish in his friend’s eyes, he attempted a last plea:

– What about our families? – Until the end of planet XYRYX. It was a voice intensely sad that began to recite. –  It’s a preventive measure against an atomic war, explained XYRYX 318. Impulsively, Ryad applauded and cried out:

– Marvellous! Nude in style and limpid in voice, it begins in the tone of a childhood tale until suddenly the ground opens and horror engulfs the story. Alym tried to repair his companion’s rudeness. The car-boat-plane machine rode on firm ground a little, then took off in the air. XYRYX 1,000 spoke to them in a tongue unintelligible to the two men. – Where are we? As much as one can be. – We call it the Professor. ***

Meanwhile, on earth, the commander of Base 88 was very worried. – Okay, but…

An unexpected crackling sound interrupted him mid-sentence. I have come across no other Algerian novelists interested in sci-fi during this period, out of those who wrote in the French language, and have personally elected her the first sci-fi writer of post-independence Algeria. To stop his friend embarrassing their hostess any further, Alym asked:

– Could I ask, what doctrine have you chosen to live by on this planet? The two men followed XYRYX 318 outside. – Couples are formed very simply. To make sure they were not lacking anything, she began to question them. They filled up the tank and bought provisions from the astronauts’ shop. Even from space, some things appeared inescapable in Algerian history. A heavy silence followed the question just spoken. Utter fright. The two men were barely breathing.  Ryad tried to break from his suffocation but could not make a sound. He checked the time on his ring-watch and left them alone. He wanted to act naïve:

– If I understand correctly, he said to his friend, you’re in real trouble. After the beauty of the landscape, it was a peculiar sight. You will be his deputy. Amazing! He felt he was losing grip of his senses. Alym scratched his head, perplexed:

– I don’t see what XYRYX’s aim is. There was enough to refresh a whale. – That’s quite all right, it’s nothing. – So it’s a success, admitted Alym. The vehicle lost altitude and softly landed on the main roof. – There is nothing problematic about unions here. Next to him and rocked by the machine’s regular movements, Alym felt a sweet drowsiness overtake him. Immediately, a young woman, wearing number 1,000 on the front of her clothing, entered the bedroom. – How odd, grunted Ryad. By delegating an eternal leader whose duty will be to safeguard unity and popular opinion. Unperturbed, the leader added:

– You are in the same situation. After Ketou, I am aware that Cherif Arbouz has written a four volume sci-fi saga in French, the first published in 2010, when Arbouz was 80! said Alym, who couldn’t believe his ears. – Of course I do, you never stop joking. When we are born, they provide us with food, accommodation, and clothing.  At the same time, they become our educators until we acquire this teaching device, that is, the Professor. Ryad thought he’d found a breach in this argument and declared:

– Conclusion: you should let us go. – I am, said the leader of the XYRYX, because when the people of this planet are about to die, they become invisible for a little while, just before death. –  This way, during the day, soldiers guard the city, weapon in hand. protested Alym. –  That’s what we’re going to find out, declared XYRYX 318 standing up. he asked. This question, although somewhat premature, relaxed the atmosphere.  The two astronauts looked at each other, and burst out laughing, a pleasant release when their chest up to now had been tight with anguish. – Already, you no longer have families. She brought him back to his seat to make him drink a calming potion. How? – What? – So why don’t you continually live underground? – Leader of the XYRYX! Wherever I am, my vehicle can find me as soon as I call for it. – I am the leader of the XYRYX. – That’s true, Ryad admitted, I’m being dramatic. – Who is this super pilot leading us by the nose? Seeing the effect of his revelation, the leader of the XYRYX gently laughed. Forced to land, both men are summoned to visit the leader for a little chat that will alter their fate. Meanwhile, Faiza 7 had landed softly like a falling leaf on an autumnal ground. Alym worried. Asked Ryad. Grey with fright, Ryad murmured:

– Gloomy…

– This is where our leader resides, the driver said. Seeing the monster, a scream escaped the two men. Safia Ketou is all but forgotten today. He felt his mind quit him. – Yes, this planet’s air is called Pleasure Air. – You will know in good time. Much could be improved in my version, and a lot more remains to be translated from Ketou’s work. Ryad felt a threat floating over them and turned pale. – Why not? Ryad laughed brushing it off:

– Look at this luxury.  Isn’t it an ideal place to regain some strength? Ryad said. – That’s all, repeated Alym. The two men did not wait. – I’ve never heard of it, admitted Ryad. – Okay, over and out. Ryad felt that fear was overwhelming him. – Is there oxygen on this planet? Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs  at about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature. – We rely on the audio-visual method. Our recorders and televisions have great recognition power. Ryad exclaimed:

– Us! Ryad laughed. In her titular story, Ketou’s sense of humor is mostly expressed through her choice of settings, in a bar a zillion light years away from planet Algeria, or during a feast where characters still harass aliens with questions about marriage and political doctrines. During these long moments, no comforting sound could have made the fear which had overtaken the room go away. – Until when? They obeyed, keeping their eyes fixed on the leader who continued:

– I diverted your ship because I need you. – Really? According to their earth-watch, they had walked for only a few minutes when they saw that a green city was rising from the ground, about a hundred meters from where they stood.  Thinking he was being tricked by a mirage, Alym asked Ryad:

– Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Opening his door, XYRYX 318 explained:

– This residence is also a spaceship. When he said these words, a woman’s voice came from some place hidden. The strange voice had stopped. The leader of the XYRYX would achieve his goal. –  Why is this city moving, he asked? – To butcher me with! Taking advantage of a moment during which XYRYZ 318 was distracted, he emptied his glass in a flower pot. I hope this won’t hurt it, he thought. They were feeling at ease and answered easily.  XYRYX 1,000 was really a charming and cultivated hostess. – We are really being treated like princes, he said. – We are changing direction, said Alym who was observing the control panel. The XYRYX touched a handle. A hubbub welcomed the two men. With a calm voice, the leader of the XYRYX explained:

– Understand me well, he said, I do not want you to reproduce.  The Mauve Planet must not be submerged by little earthlings and later by their descendants. – What do you mean? – Yes, I am about to die. He’s got tastes, thought Alym, while his companion was elbowing him in the ribs lightly in common understanding.  The two men began to examine the aspect of this strange residence.  It seemed to be made out of materials unknown to them. Suddenly, the mural intercom crackled and a man’s voice called out:

– Hello XYRYX 1,000? Greatly distressed, Alym called out:

– The Tenth Space! The engine also works everywhere, in the air, underwater or on ground level. He felt himself become a child again, sat before an illustrated book, just for an instant. – Go on, grumbled Ryad, we are both lost in a mauve desert with a moveable city that pops up from the ground, and Mister Happy Alym finds it perfectly okay somehow to explode with laughter! – Me, quietly replied XYRYX 318. – Exquisite! As soon as they took their first step inside, the two men were spellbound.  A bewitching music welcomed them. They replied yes. This brief discussion had taken place in a language foreign to the two men. Along the way, a powerful force-field makes Faiza 7 veer off course, toward an unchartered planet. The hostess replied to him gently:

– There is no sea on the Mauve Planet. Alym sighed with relief. A shudder froze the atmosphere.  Alym tried to be warm and said:

– Well, one is never sure. – You are always so full of suspicions. – But … what for? Oh would you just speak! Ryad was humming in his cabin looking at the stars while Alym kept an eye on the steering-needles, chewing on vitamin pills. You haven’t changed. offered XYRYX 318, opening the doors. XYRYX 318 was keeping an eye on the content level.  Seizing an opportune moment, he amiably offered:

– Do you want some more? Ryad stretched himself for a long while before addressing his friend who had buried himself in fur. Born Zohra Rabhi in 1944, Safia Ketou wrote children books, poetry (Citar Friends ‘Amie Cithare’), plays (Asma) and short stories. With the standard investigation complete, the men were declared lost. Nadia Ghanem is ArabLit’s Algeria Editor. – Because of the air system. – Take off your protective suits and come out of your shuttle. One of the men raised his hand to call for calm. – No, because your opinion matters little to me. Once out, he took out of his pocket a device not bigger than a matchbox.  He pressed on it and asked:

– You do know this, don’t you? The earthlings’ eyes rested on the same spot.  They saw a being with no head, lying on a round bed.  He spoke in Esperanto:

– Sit down, Earth men. – Why shouldn’t I be? ***

Soon, a large planet, mauve in colour, appeared on Faiza 7’s front screen.  A surprise whistle escaped Ryad.  His companion hurried to switch on the system’s powerful cameras. – Do you want to go in? XYRYX invited the two men to sit down. XYRYX 318 got behind the wheel. Ryad whistled and Alym said:

– How so? Twenty people in metallic clothing, some sitting some standing, were in the bar.  They were completely flat and wore a number on their chest.  Their heads had two faces; they did not need to turn to examine who had come in and in a second the realization of the two men’s arrival froze the assembly. – Let’s go in, Alym decided, pushing the door. – An order, the leader stressed. “The Mauve Planet” is a sci-fi story set on planet XYRYX. He came to meet the two men and declared:

– It was not an accident. – Yes, because we have the chance to ask it any question and it has the ability to answer all of them with exactitude. – And so, you have become indestructible. – Because for us, no problem is insoluble. –  And what effect does it have on people from planet earth? – A spaceship? Ryad, back in control of himself, listened carefully and kept an eye on the voice-recorders that had just kicked in. – Do you get practical classes? It was coming from the intercom on the wall. – Perfect, confirmed Ryad with a sneer. The drink had an indefinable taste and they had a difficult time hiding their cringing faces while drinking. – Yes, I’m listening. The space shuttle was supposed to go toward the moon, where a new base had been built in 1980, but a curious phenomenon was altering Faiza 7’s trajectory.  The direction that the shuttle was following appeared irresistibly attracted by a force leading them toward Shipwreck-Space. They were speechless. In that event, my people would be in danger, especially because they themselves are mortals. – Oh, do forgive me, sputtered Ryad, blushing. The two colleagues tasted each dish she served them. They were leaving the earth just as the first snowflakes were landing on the ground. – A photo souvenir for my wife, he said with a cheeky wink. As for Alym, he only smiled and observed:

– When my wife finds out, she’s…

The leader of the XYRYX interrupted him:

– You wife will never see you again. The hijacking of a trajectory, the suffocation and near-madness experienced by the characters, the promise of luxury if they comply, and tampered milk, read as a wink to the challenges that would follow 1962. Her work has not been republished, nor has it been translated. To calm his nerves, Ryad put his seat in semi-horizontal position and took a nap. Come with me. I’ve often wondered if the inescapable situations in which she places her characters mirror her own anxieties. – As for me, I adapt to all environments. At night, we make the city go down below ground so that everybody can rest running no risks. – Let’s take the Y pills, advised Alym. – It’s simple, I count on the two of you. – With pleasure, the two men replied, climbing in the strange car. No one is in need here.  We eliminated private property and state capitalism a long time ago.  Social justice is a concrete reality. Ryad said approvingly, inhaling a second time. As soon as he did so, the two guests were served two glasses filled with a whitish liquid. A hush descended. XYRYX 318 smiled:

– It’s radio-controlled. He started up the engine and he said:

– Even though it is automatic, I prefer to drive it myself as in the good old days. he asked. – We’re finished, said Ryad, his eyes fixed on the control panel. And yet she is probably the first sci-fi writer in contemporary Algerian literature. Worried, Alym tried to stabilize the needles but in vain.  Instinctively, his teammate awoke and started radio-calling the Air Base. – Happy? Pale, Alym was in control enough to whisper:

– He spoke in Esperanto. – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Dr. A true aesthete, Ryad was shocked.  He could not help but observe:

– Strange architecture. Unfamiliar perfumes tickled their nose. The window was slightly ajar, and opened on a well-kept garden, filled with luminous flowers whose species was unknown to them. But do recognise that we have not been brought here for our looks. There are remedies for all ills, a solution to all problems. Ryad pulled a sceptical face:

– You are very optimistic, to hope to see her again. – I really could do with a coffee, said Ryad, seeing a drinking area through the transparent walls of the city. – Then it’s not a mirage, concluded Ryad with an comical accent which made Alym laugh nervously. Suddenly, a sort of a brontosaur-shape rose up on the horizon, almost touching the windshield. – As you wish. – What are you seeing? – On us? During this interminable exchange, the leader of the XYRYX had remained composed.  Calmly, he spoke again:

– As I was telling you, my life is about to end…

– Alas…., cried the young girl. They function by number. – It’s a radio-control for a car. For example, woman 120 will marry man 120. – Why? – We have opted for scientific socialism. An indescribable sadness enveloped them. Two ugly giants were guarding the entrance. – How so? No thanks. – Don’t choke yourself, I haven’t taken my first aid kit. – When I die, you will take my place. The landscape was so harmonious that Ryad felt his painter’s fingers tickle. Their new space-suit, made from a material resistant to every condition, had just been delivered. – It’s …. Their families were informed by the services’ psychologist on the base.  On Earth, Ryad and Alym were now considered dead. – Their eternal leader. – What do you call this instrument? It also stops old age. Alym and Ryad followed the hostess through the flowery corridors of the spaceship-city.  At the end of the last corridors, a door made of asbestos suddenly opened and four armed men proceeded to accompany the earthlings to the guide. All sense of time had vanished, the atmosphere’s density seemed heavier to them, almost unbearable.  Close to fainting, they were nonetheless walking behind a smiling hostess who kept turning around to check on them and reassure them. It’s a monster, stuttered Ryad. – Or like hostages, finished Alym. Who could have conceived such a thing? I confess that personally, I aspire to nothing else if that is what you mean…

– Are you married? Ryad raised his shoulders. But fantasy seems to have generated more interest than sci-fi, with Anys Mezzaour the young author of a fantasy trilogy published from 2013. Ryad who had come back to his senses, asked:

– What can we do?