Monday, February 14, 2011

Will Algeria be the next to force a change in government? Books About Algeria and Algerian Literature

Whenever I start to think about political events, especially calls for reform or revolt driven by the people, I begin to wonder about the culture of the people in question.  When I think about culture I immediately begin to think about the literature of the people.  Unless you can travel and spend time with a people, the next best way to understand them is to sample the literature that defines their culture and history.  Today, I'm trying to learn a little bit about the literature of Algeria.  Recent events in North Africa have led to the toppling of the governments of Tunisia and Egypt.  Is Algeria next?

Algeria has played a role in the history of North Africa from ancient times with Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman and eventually French control (1830-1962).  Independent since 1962 Algeria, population of around 34 million, is an oil rich nation with an economy primarily controlled by the State and is struggling to modernize, diversify and meet the needs and growing demands of a young(ish) population. 

After winning independence from France in 1962, Algeria's government was based on socialist development models with primary State control of industry.  In 1988 some reforms were instituted to allow for competing political parties but these were abandoned due to conflict with and fear of the growing political power of Islamic religious parties from the established political elite.  In recent years, radical Islamic groups have threatened Algerian stability and transitioning to a more open economic model with a more open democratic government is proving very difficult and slow-moving.  The Algerian people continue to demand government and economic reforms and are calling for the resignation of their current President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in office since 1999.  For background information on the history of Algeria see Library of Congress Country Source material for Algeria.  The CIA World Fact Book is a great source of data on all countries and the page for Algeria is here.  Check your favorite news source for continuing coverage of the protests and calls for reform, I suggest The Christian Science Monitor for ongoing coverage.

What about the literature of Algeria? 

One of my favorite authors, Albert Camus(1913-1960), was born in Algeria during French control and his Algerian upbringing definitely impacted his later writings.  He moved to France when he was 25 (1938) and he quickly became active in the intellectual circles calling for dramatic social and governmental change.  Think of Camus as bringing an Algerian sentiment to the pre-World War II, World War II and post World War II debates on government, economic and social issues. 

His book, The Rebel:  An Essay on Man in Revolt, translated by Anthony Bower (Alfred Knopf, New York, 1954) is a masterpiece, offering a foundational philosophy of man, the rebel.  Camus's study of man in rebellion was impacted by the active political debates of the day but his foundational thought on what motivates man to revolt rings true in any era.  For a fundamental understanding of the call for reform, revolution and change in Algeria today, one could have no better insight than that provided by a native son.

Finding literature that speaks to the calls for independence from the French with a more pure, enduring, Algerian voice and for literature of today that speaks to today's Algerian character is possible and probably very interesting!

My research suggests that the first place to start is with Nedjma:  A Novel by Kateb Yacine (George Braziller, New York, 1961).  The University of Virginia Press released a paperback edition reprint in 2001 and the product description from the page at is insightful:  "Nedjma is a masterpiece of North African writing. Its intricate plot involves four men in love with the beautiful woman whose name serves as the title of the novel. Nedjma is the central figure of this disorienting novel, but more than the unfortunate wife of a man she does not love, more than the unwilling cause of rivalry among many suitors, Nedjma is the symbol of Algeria. Kateb has crafted a novel that is the saga of the founding ancestors of Algeria through the conquest of Numidia by the Romans, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, and French colonial conquest. Nedjma is symbolic of the rich and sometimes bloody past of Algeria, of its passions, of its tenderness; it is the epic story of a human quest for freedom and happiness."  A few copies of the 1961 Braziller edition are available (see link for Braziller above) for about the same price as the paperback!

Assia Djebar, Professor of French at New York University is a contemporary Algerian author often focusing on the role of women in Algerian history, society and their importance and potential to force change.  She is an important voice of the Algerian people through her writings and films.  It seems to me that the place to start with Djebar is Fantasia:  An Algerian Cavalcade (Quartet, London 1989 and Heineman, New York, 1992).  There are first edition, first printings available, but there is some confusion in the listings and either the few available are expensive or the low priced are probably not true first editions.  In this case, especially if you are interested in simply reading, I'd go with a current paperback edition. Djebar has more recent publications and they may appear more timely from the publication date, they could not be in line with current events and I believe her earlier work remains the best bet!

I have a collection of Camus and love his writing.  I am tempted to explore Algerian literature but for the time being, I will probably just keep an eye on current news.

No comments:

Post a Comment