30 Reads: A Month of Algerian Literature by Women

In The Algerian women of the Castle of Amboise, Chouati has reconstructed the story of the women and children who were imprisoned with the Emir, and who had fought by his side, included his wives, and his sisters-in-law. To make time for writing, while still paying the bills, she quits her job in publishing and works part-time as a market researcher. When Ibrahim finds Ben Haroun’s number in the dead man’s pocket and traces Ermano Bergonzi’s calls to Turin, the net takes on an international angle and the enigma becomes deadly. Both anthologies contain the poems that Anna Greki composed while she was imprisoned by the French authorities in Algiers’ infamous Serkaji jail between March 1957 and November 1958. Zoulikha Saoudi’s fiction was impossible to find for decades until the scholar Ahmed Cheribet collected her novel, short stories, plays, and letters in an anthology published in 2001(see here). 23. What is the origin of the Khamsa (the hand of Fatma)? But the truth is still harsh. Most others await another language with whom to travel along a new route. Laredj deplores (quite rightly) that Saoudi has largely been forgotten, except in Khenchela, her home city, where she is still celebrated. This concludes my list of personal recommendations. The Palm Tree by Zeinab Laouedj in Paroles d’Algériens: Ecrire pour résister dans l’Algerie du XXè Siècle (Writing to Resist in 20th Century Algeria), Serpent à plume editions, 2003

Zeinab Laouedj is one of Algeria’s literary treasures. For young Ishaq, symbols don’t have a single point of origin, they come from a shared past in which each member of a community participate. The novel is translated from the Arabic by Jolana Guardi. It lives at the   Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art   in   Qatar. But when the nurse comes to draw blood, something unexpected happens. Saoudi emerged on the literary scene in 1960 when she narrated her first short story “The Victim” on the radio. Note that some of the stories’ comments on skin color are offensive. The Mischief by Assia Djebar (La soif), translated to English by Frances Frenaye (Elek Books, UK, 1958)

Assia Djebar’s first novel was published in 1957 by René Julliard editions. It’s a fun read, and as far as I could find it is the earliest crime fiction by a woman published in Algeria. I translate it awkwardly to English here, to give a sense of the themes she explored in her novels and poetry. From one generation to the next, six women sacrifice everything they have made to keep their family alive. It is one of the earliest works of fiction produced by an Algerian novelist to be have been translated to the English language. Souheila Haïmiche and Cristina Viti write that Greki “was able to smuggle a notebook out of Barberousse prison and to publish her first collection in 1963, while exiled in Tunis.”

3. Fatma n’Parapli by Safia Ouarezki, inked by Soumeya Ouarezki, drawn by Mahmoud Benameur (Dalimen editions, 2014)

This vibrant comix written in Algerian Derja follows two women, Lallahoum and Fatma, in their neighborhood (Flissa, El Biar) on the heights of Algiers. Fatma collects broken umbrellas, Lallahoum mends things and sometimes tells the fortunes of the neighborhood’s women. A handful of her poems appeared in French translation, in the collective volume Paroles d’Algériens : Ecrire pour résister dans l’Algerie du XXè Siècle (Writing to Resist in 20th Century Algeria), published by Serpent à plume editions in 2003. The Streets of Algiers by Souheila Haïmiche and Cristina Viti also collects a selection of Greki’s poems, translated to the English language. Literary novels

18. Whatever the intention, the result is that Baya told them the story of Le grand zoiseau, a Kabyle folktale that still lives on today, as confirmed to me by the Algerian novelist Lynda Chouiten. 28. Very soon, the consequences of her meddling will lead to events no one foresaw. In ‘Who is speaking,’ the poet-narrator seizes the reader by the shirtfront and asks: ‘Tell me – Who are you? Like Rabia Djelty and Zeineb Laouedj, her work has barely circulated outside of the MENA region. She meets a man, and he is a miniature human who’ll just have to do. A story of immigration, about the Algerian community’s place in France. In the short 122 pages of this collection, Fakira-Wassila Douar recorded 337 wise sayings and 12 buqalat (poems told during divinatory sessions exclusively held and attended by women in Algiers) that were, or still are, specifically used in the capital. An excerpt translated by Sawad Hussein can be read on Word Without Borders here. In this collection, her poem The Palm Tree is dedicated to Abdelkader Alloua, the Algerian playwright assassinated on 10 March 1994, and to the poet Youcef Sebti assassinated on 27 December 1993:

My country

I am a Lion

And I will make you tremble

til your forests

Me, the Crazed

Mad for the love of his land

Where no other madman

Resembles me

My

Stature

Stands tall

Your

Grave

Cannot

Contain it…

The earth turns

Even lying down

I

Rise

Like

A

Palmtree

In

The soil

Of the earth. 30. translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker (2020). Les criquelins by Leila Marouane (novella), recommended by @Kei_ghdh

A story that follows a man in a psychiatric ward, and who momentarily regains consciousness. Zoubeida Mameria wanted to put to pen the stories of her childhood, and she gathered them in three volumes, using French and Derja. The story and leaflet can be read on ArabLit here in the original French, and in my English translation. Flutters of a Star will be released at the end of September 2021 by Edizioni Le Assasine, in Italian translation as ‘Il Bianco e il Nero. However, this post is based on a Twitter thread which began on August 4, 2020 and lasted for that month. Comment j’ai fumé tous mes livres (How I Smoked All My Books) by Fatma Zohra Zamoum. Terre des Femmes (Women’s Earth) stretches from 1847 to 1960, and is set in Algeria’s tachawit region (the Aures mountains). My English translation of this story here could be vastly improved by sci-fi fans! Check out ArabLit Quaterly’s CRIME issue (2020) for Hassan El Mohtasib’s artwork around a selection of Algerian detective novels including this one. Whispers is a family drama, narrated by a woman who was trying to escape the violence of war, and of family traditions. But before they can tie the knot, a fair bit of magic has to happen, which will involve a little dog that can drink rivers and a magic bird that holds much wisdom. Amal Bouchareb’s playful story is even mischievous in its title. Safia Ouarezki spoek with ArabLit here about the story’s exploration of depression, and of women ostracized by their own communities. And then came along Amel Chouati. In her review for The Middle East Eye, Marcia Lynx Qualey writes that “The Olive Trees’ Jazz and Other Poems opens by posing an urgent question about identity and language”. 4. They had been betrayed, and were now given a choice. 29. The novel unfolds little by little, as this writer parts with her books, and as she observes her own reactions to separating from stories that had once meant so much. 17. Zakia Allal, born in 1966, has published several short-story collections; many were collected online by Allal on her website and can be read there. Les Pirates du Desert (Pirates of the Desert) by Zehira Houfani, ENAL, 1986

Zehira Houfani’s second detective novel is set in Tamanrasset where the detectives are comically useless and would have understood nothing if a female suspect hadn’t explained everything. Or were they looking for the artist’s words to add to the exhibition leaflet? (English translation by Nadia Ghanem)

Novellas

5. translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker, Pleiades Press, 2020. Whenever you feel ready, let them on your ship. When you speak in someone else’s language?’.” Read Marcia’s full review here. This list is made to celebrate these women’s skills and their stories’ spirit. Birth of a Writer by Zhour Ounissi, translated from the Arabic by Shirley Eber and Fadia Faqir

Zhour Ounissi is one of Algeria’s well-known novelist. In 1959, Avon books released the novel under the title Nadia – a young and naïve girl in her first experience of love. Each piece is given in Derja, and translated to French by Amine Mehrez. Mady is both Italian and Algerian, and his dual citizenship puts pressure on Inspector Ibrahim and his team to uncover what has happened. ArabLit interviewed Zehira Houfani a few years ago here. The Djinn’s Apple is Djamila Morani’s second work of fiction. Unsurprisingly, biographies of the Emir have mostly focused on the stories of the men. Her whole family has been assassinated in their home, following the caliph’s order. They are of all ages, of all walks of life, from cities and villages. Marcia Lynx Qualey interviewed Lwiz in 2014 to discuss her exploration of the “black decade” in her fiction. Two astronauts, Alym and Ryad suddenly lose control of their spaceship. The Murder of Sonia Zaid by Rahima Karim

When Sonia is found lifeless by her neighbour, all assume she suffocated because of the gas leak, but detectives are curious: there are one too many cups of coffee on the table. 22. I hope that Kabyle-English speakers will join in to give their own rendition. On that day, Algerians who were demonstrating for freedom in Paris were assassinated by the French police, who threw their bodies in the Seine. 25. 27. “Ziɣ mazal ur nebdi” (‘So then we have not yet begun’) by Dihya Lwiz (Facebook, 27 June 2017)

Dihya Lwiz is a novelist and a poet who wrote in the Kabyle language and in Arabic. The titular story is a sci-fi short. Between 1956 and 2020, only 18 Algerian women (compared to 30 men) have so far been translated to the English language (see recension here). And Other Dreary Things (واشياء مملة اخرة) by Amina Cheikh (Hibr edition, 2016)

And Other Dreary Things was named after one of Amina’s son’s outbursts “واشياء مملة اخرة”, which ended a long list of all the things his siblings were annoying him with. There is Na Hbouba, who reflects on why she killed her daughter, and Meriem who reconciles herself to the torture she endured as a child. Terre des femmes (Women’s Land) by Nassira Belloula

Belloula always has explored women’s rights, past and present, in her fiction for many years. Naked Veins by Zakia Allal (شرايين عارية) (readable online here)

Zakia Allal has a deliciously dark sense of humor (and of doom), and this short story illustrates her style well. Folktales revisited

11. The Magic Grain is a classic in Amazigh literature. Comix

14. Nassira Belloula won the Kateb Yacine Prize in 2016 for this novel. Others were written several decades ago, like the painter Baya Mahieddine’s recounting of an old Kabyle folktale to which she gave the title Le Grand Zoiseau (‘The great bird’) – a story printed on an art exhibition leaflet dated to 1947. 2. 19. The Algerian poet Zeineb Laouedj is currently preparing a collection of Zoulikha Saoudi’s correspondence for publication. The bilingual collection “blurs the lines between essay, manifesto, open letter, and prose poem. Nabil, her brother, has disappeared. La Seine était rouge (The Seine Was Red) by Leila Sebbar, recommend by @sarahbmghr

Set in 1996, this novel follows Amel and Omer, who slowly become aware of the events that occurred on October 17, 1961. A brief overview of the novel was published on ArabLit here. For Sheikh Abdallah, a historian who specialised in ancient secrets, it is originally a Jewish symbol, each fingers of that precious palm representing one of the books of Torah: the Exegesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Devarim. She survives, and in remembrance her descendants hand each other her shawl as a symbol of resistance. By the middle of it, other readers had joined in to recommend the titles they too would like to see in translation, here are a few answers:

Other readers’ suggestions

26. Dihya Lwiz passed away in 30 June 2017, aged 32, from cancer. She was being punished for her support of, and participation in, the war of independence. Zeineb’s shawl becomes the surviving witness to the many trials that awaited generations of Algerians from France’s colonisation of Algeria up to the war of independence. Very soon though, she realises she has forgotten to factor in one essential budget expenditure: her cigarettes, without which she can’t write. In this sensuous novel, a young girl starts playing with the feelings of a couple, while spending her last summer in Algeria before she goes to study abroad. For generations, violent conflicts have robbed them of their men. It is now a garden called the Jardin d’Orient opened to the public. La planète mauve (The Mauve Planet) by Safia Ketou (Naaman editions, 1983)

In 1983, Safia Ketou (1944-1989) published a short story collection called La planète mauve et autres Nouvelles (The Mauve Planet and other stories), from works she had written between 1962 and 1978. These are difficult stories, and the horror that unfolds is remarkably suspenseful. Chouati discovered that 25 women and children had died at the castle of Amboise between 1848 and 1852. 12. Fatima ou les Algériennes au square by Leila Sebbar, recommended by Cheikh Evara @michtosincere

Fatima is one of the first wave of women to have immigrated to France in the 80s. The complete corpus of the Algerian writer Zoulikha Saoudi, 1943-1972, compiled by Ahmed Cheribet (الآثار الأدبية الكاملة للأديبة الجزائرية، زليخا السعودي), 2001

For several decades now, the novelist Waciny Laredj has been calling attention to the work of Zoulikha Saoudi (1944-1972), whom he calls “the mother of Algerian literature” for her pioneering work and style. Crime fiction

20. Untitled is a   gouache,   graphite   and   paper   painting   created by   Baya Mahieddine   in   1992. She also blogs at   tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk   about Algerian literature. Did they want the story that inspired her collection? There, Zhour Ounissi speaks about her childhood and awakening as a writer. 7. After years of resisting France’s colonization of Algeria, Emir Abd-el-Kader was forced to surrender, and it was agreed that he, his family, and retinue would be sent away in exile either in Alexandria or somewhere in Syria. She is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow attached to the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, where she works on a project translating divination texts from ancient Iraq, written in the Akkadian language. Short Stories

6. Its translation to English followed a year later. In this story, told in Baya’s own words, a little girl wants to marry desperately. In Just Above The Silence, the Algerian poet Lamis Saidi compiled a selection of Greki’s poems and translated them to the Arabic. You can read a few excerpts translated to English here, and remember “They say: follow the advice of the one who makes you cry, not the one who makes you laugh.”

Memoirs and biographies

15. In her introduction, Nadjet Dahmoun explains she wanted to capture the stories of Kabyle women trapped in traditional and patriarchal environments. Poetry:

1. The texts were translated by Shirley Eber and Fadia Faqir. You can listen to Amel Chouati speak about her research here. I have found no translation of her work to French or English, except for her essay “Birth of a Writer” in the collection In the House of Silence. Like a message in a bottle, I roll it up here and send it to say that these works exist, and were you to scan the horizons, you too would see them. The Djinn’s Apple by Djamila Morani (Tuffa7 el-Djinn) translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain, Teem Tree Press, 2023

Part crime novel, part historical fiction, The Djinn’s Apple is an exciting story set during the caliphate of Haroun al-Rashid and narrated in the first person by twelve-year old Nardeen. Her novel, أسفل الحب, published by Apic Editions, won the Ali Maachi Prize in 2008. The French threw their bodies in a common grave. 30 Reads: A Month of Algerian Literature by Women

On why Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) is a time of joy and sorrow:

By Nadia Ghanem

Women in Translation Month is always a time of great excitement for me, but as a reader addicted to Algerian fiction it is also a time for sorrow. Ilias Mady was a world-famous artist who taught art in Turin, and had come back to Algiers at the request of Sheikh Ben Haroun to solve a puzzle. Nardeen finds refuge as an apprentice, but after some time has elapsed, she has to make a choice: find out why her father was framed, or forget and move on. Proverbs of Old (Lemtoul nta3 zmen) by Fakira-Wassila Douar, El Dar El Othmania, 2013

“They say: kiss a dog on his mouth until you get what you want from him” (Qallek: buss l-kleb men femmu ḥta teqdi ḥdjetek mennu). 9. She is a prolific poet who writes in Arabic;  her works is largely unknown outside the Middle East and North Africa. The story begins with Zeineb, a little girl whose world falls apart in 1840 when the French invade her area. The word ‘nedjma’, both references a ‘star’ and also the title of Yacine Kateb’s famous novel in which the main character, Nedjma represents Algeria (a metaphor used in a type of myths called El-Djazia in Algeria). Her edition also includes a number of texts Greki wrote about colonialism. Either they surrendered or they would all be massacred. Sherifa recalls the moment her wish to divorce became overwhelming the moment she saw her in-laws cut up a partridge into 35 pieces. It was no place to live, especially in the winter months. Le grand zoiseau (The great great big bird) by Baya Mahieddine

The Algerian painter Baya Mahieddine is not known to have written fiction, but it seems that when Galerie Maeght in Paris organized Baya’s first exhibition in November 1947, they asked her for a story. And as her novel grows, her personal library dwindles. But after their surrender, the French recanted and imprisoned them all for five years in the château d’Amboise (including seven months in a castle in Pau). Leïla Hamoutene won the Escale Littéraire prize in 2015 for this novel. In 2015, she released a novel Returning to My Grave (عائد إلى قبري), which follows an Algerian journalist covering events in Iraq. In her title, Bouchareb winks at this classic, and engages with it between the lines of her fast-faced thriller. She realized there and then she could no longer stay part of this family. Sci-fi

10. Algerian Folktales (Contes du terroir algérien) by Zoubeida Mameria, Dalimen editions, 2013

This lush collection of Algerian folktales bursts with stories of hungry ogresses, talking bones, shape-shifters, and magic mixing with daily activities. Les algériennes du château d’Amboise– La suite de l’émir Abd el-Kader (The Algerian women of the Castle of Amboise – the retinue of the Emir Abd el-Kader) by Amel Chouati, published by La Cheminante editions in France in 2013, and reedited by Sedia editions in Algeria in 2016

In December 1847, Emir Abd-el-Kader, his men and their respective families found themselves entirely encircled by a detachment of 200 French army men. So to reconcile what is on the ground with what is on my mind, I thought WIT could be celebrated with a list of deliciously enjoyable works by Algerian women that could bring so much pleasure to readers in other languages if they were to be translated. How I smoked all my books is a witty and amusing novel about the place that literature has in our home and lungs, and on the act of writing. Labourers’ carts are pulled by lions and snakes, and midwifes help frogs give birth. Algerian writer Assia Dridi’s 1973 detective novel God and the trinity precedes it by 13 years, but it was published in France. La fille du berger (The Shepherd’s Daughter) by Laura Mouzaia, recommended by Khalid @TontonKhalid

Laura Mouzaia is a sociologist who worked on the status of women in Kabyle society, and on immigration issues. The prolific novelist Smail Yabrir, known for his multigenerational family sagas, is her husband. Of course, I do enjoy painting for you, right now, a slightly more calamitous situation than the one I actually face – I blame Algerian fiction’s long love affair with tragedies for my theatrics. The women of this family are exhausted. In her tremendous study, Amel Chouati rebuilt the forgotten lives of women and children long forgotten in history books. But after having separated the nobles from the servants (the latter sent away on board ships in enslavement), everybody was forced to live there. An Amazigh Mirror (مرايا أمازيغية) by Nadjet Dahmoun (ANEP editions, 2016)

In this collection of thirty stories, different women reflect in turn on the hardships that have marked their lives. For the blurb, her publishers L’Harmattan chose to simply quote a letter that Mouloud Mammeri had sent the author to express his awe at “this poignant novel,” and at her courage for having put in words “the bare, bleak, and bloody truth.”

*

Nadia Ghanem is ArabLit’s Morocco and Algeria editor. Serkaji, formerly Barberousse prison, was known to be a place of horror, where women were tortured and abused by jailors. He is a lawyer, and in this novel, we are in 1990s during the ‘black decade’. The only belongings of value she owns is her personal library. Two separate anthologies have recently remedied this, and they present Greki’s poetry in English and in Arabic. 21. Few novels written by Algerian women have been translated (to English or to any other languages), and if I stuck to the list of works that have appeared in English translation, I would end up recommending the same books on a loop, making people think that Algeria’s literary production is almost entirely composed of works by Assia Djebar. Le châle de Zeineb by Leïla Hamoutene (Zeineb’s Shawl), Casbah editions, 2015

Zeineb’s Shawl is a novel that follows several generations of women until the present day. They are being pulled off course by the Mauve Planet’s leader who has a special request for the two men. Le grain magique (The Magic Grain) by Taos Amrouche (originally published in 1966 by Maspero editions, France)

“The Berbers, said Ibn Khaldoun in the 15th century, tell such a large number of stories that if we took the trouble to write them down, we would fill volumes upon volumes.” It is with this sentence that Taos Amrouche opens her anthology The Magic Grain, a collection of the Kabyle folktales, proverbs, and poems she collected and dedicated to her mother, the poet Marguerite Fatma Aït Mansour. Some of the titles listed here were recently published in English translation, such as The Olive Trees’ Jazz by Samira Negrouche. The book opens when Nardeen just about escapes death. For more on Zoulikha Saoudi, see here. Her seven year-old daughter Dalila, beaten by her father, soon decides she will break free. 8. ArabLit ran an article about the collection here. The work of Algerian poet Anna Greki (1931-1966) could not be found for a long time. Improvements are invited, as well as translators of other languages. This entertaining detective fiction set in Algiers was written by one of the rare women who engages with crime fiction in Algeria. She regularly published her poems on facebook, and her last publication was the below poem:

Ziɣ mazal ur nebdiAbrid ɣer tmusniAbrid ɣer tlelli Deg wiyaḍ mi ara nettwaliAmek akken yeshel kulci Ɣur-neɣ amzun d awezɣiUr neẓri acimiNugi ad neffeɣ seg iḍelliTɛejba-ɣ tnumiTɛejba-ɣ truẓi N wayen lɛaliIɛejba-ɣ leɛwej dg-i nettiliNugad an beddelAkken ahat fella-ɣ ad tbeddel !! Chuchotements (Whispers) by Leila Aslaoui-Hemmadi, Dalimen, 2015

When Hourria is suddenly called by her grandmother begging she returns to Algeria, she knows something terrible has happened. While I’ll never stop recommending Djebar, I do wish other Algerian novelists had made it to the shores of other languages. La Grotte éclatée et Arris de Yamina Mecharkra, recommended by @djouadi_arslane  

Yasmina Mechakra’s two powerful novels The Cave and Arris, made her work a cornerstone of Algerian literature. *

So then we have not yet begun

The road toward wisdom

The road toward freedom

For those we always look on

how is it all so easy

It seems, for us it never is

We do not know why

We refuse to leave yesterday

We like habits

We like destruction

Among all the good there is

We like the twisted things in which we live

We fear we’ll change

Because perhaps then it will change

To honor her memory, several national newspapers republished this last piece in the days that followed her funeral, and readers published their translations of it to the French language. published in 2006 by La Chambre d’écho in France and reedited by Chihab editions in Algeria in 2015

The novel opens with an unnamed woman who has decided time has come for her to write her novel. A man, coaxed by his wife, goes to hospital to give blood, as another catastrophe is again plaguing Algeria. In 2005, the Algerian sculptor Rachid Koraichi was commissioned to design a place of remembrance over that space. The Olive Trees’ Jazz by Samira Negrouche. The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems by Anna Gréki, a bilingual edition in French/English by Souheila Haïmiche and Cristina Viti (Smokestack Books, 2020), and Anna Greki: Juste au-dessus du silence (Just Above The Silence), a bilingual edition in French/Arabic by Lamis Saidi (Terrasses editions, 2019). Generational sagas

24. In this volume, editor by Fadia Faqir collected a series of autobiographical essays by women who write in Arabic. Flutters of a Star by Amal Bouchareb ( سكرات نجمة ), Chihab editions, 2015

Ilyas Mady is found stabbed in his grandfather’s apartment in Telemly, Algiers. Proverbs

15. A few of the titles selected here will soon appear in English translation, such as Djamila Morani’s The Djinn’s Apple translated by Sawad Hussain, which will be released in 2023 by Neem Tree Press. 13. Exile is made especially hard by her husband’s violence. In this collection of ten short stories, Amina Cheikh explores feelings of loneliness and emptiness, and our rebellions to shake them off. The castle of Amboise was dilapidated. Three years later, her first novel The Dissolution was finished, and it was serialized in El-Ahrar newspaper from 11 February 1963.