Under my byline

‘We are left with nothing’

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 3 February 2008

A conversation with Yasmina Khadra, Algerian novelist of Arab distress

The Sirens of Baghdad
Yasmina Khadra
trans. John Cullen
Random House
pp 307

“I’m not coming from Mars!” protests Mohammed Moulessehoul, the Algerian novelist who is famous under his nom de plume, Yasmina Khadra. As a soldier in the Algerian army, he was not permitted to write under his own name.

But Algeria is distant from the Indian imagination, and he writes in French. His recent books are bestsellers in English translation, because he writes about ordinary Muslims driven by circumstance to choose violent extremism, or damaged by that violence.

His latest novel, The Sirens of Baghdad, is a first-person narrative of the making of an Iraqi suicide bomber. It captures the author’s anger at the violence inflicted upon his people by outsiders and themselves. He spoke with us about the reactions his work generates, and the Arab state of mind.

Tell us about your life in Algeria.

My father was a male nurse, and my mother was a nomad. I was born in a tribe of poets. For me, writing is very natural. Algeria went through a fierce war of independence in which my father participated. When Algeria was freed, my father became an army officer, and he loved his country so much that he offered his eldest son to his country.

That’s how I became a soldier at the age of nine. I went to military school. Then I went to military academy and I became an officer. I spent 36 years of my life in the army. But for the past seven years I am a completely free man… I never wanted to become a military man. I’ve always been much closer to writers than officers.

What is the reading culture like in Algeria? How do Algerian readers respond to your books?

In my country, literature is not supported by the government, and a large proportion of the Algerian population cannot read. But many Algerians have told me that they only started reading by reading me.

Is it true your books are not available in Arabic?

For very long they were not available because the government and higher strata do not like the way I look at things, but pressure from the reading public was such that they had to translate [them] to Arabic.

What do the elite object to in what you write?

It’s because I say in a very straightforward manner what they represent for the Arab people. I say that they are corrupt, ignorant, incompetent, and traitors.

How do non-elite readers respond?

They are very proud of me. Algeria and Arab countries from time to time need to see one man defying the system and winning.

Your recent books seem to express a deep anger. Where does it come from?

I am not an angry man. I am a realist who sees the world going to the wall, and I try to respond to that. Anger is not in me but in the world.

When were you introduced to Western intellectual culture?

[As] a child. Algeria was colonised by France and we inherited the language, which is an extraordinary tool. Our most eminent intellectuals come from [the] French intellectual tradition.

Algerian schools have been devastated by the movement of Arabisation, and fundamentalism comes from this. We used to read authors from all over the world. Today our children only read theological books coming from the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

What gave rise to your last three novels (published in English as The Swallows of Kabul, The Attack and Sirens…)? Do you see them as a trilogy?

This trilogy comes from the West’s misunderstanding, lack of knowledge, about the Arab, Muslim world. But since the West has taught me so much and I am a grateful person I thought that I have to teach the West some things. And the West is a good pupil, even if at the back of the class there are always imbeciles.

Have your books had any impact on policy?

Not in the US. Americans accept with difficulty lessons from an Arab, but I am certain that later they will go back to this book to try and learn.

The protagonist in Sirens ultimately rejects modern urbanity. Yet Islam and cities are closely linked through history.

Don’t confuse the Arab nation with one specific character. We have built the first city of humanity, Damascus. We have created urbanism, with sidewalks and drains, administration, hospitals. We have given… so much that we are left with nothing.

You know the Arabs were conquerors. They built their civilisation elsewhere, in Asia, in Europe… but behind them they left desert. Today we are coming back to the desert.

Is that a good thing?

No. Globalisation is a very bad thing. We are very backward and too tired to run after the moving train.

Do you think such civilisational encounters can be used to enrich Arab culture today?

That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I want to bring West and East closer. I write in French… and I’ve heard that I write very well. Which proves that I like a language that is not mine, which proves that I am able to love the other nations which are behind it. But any love can become hatred when there is no response.

Why do Arabs resent someone so far away?

Today nothing is far. Arabs don’t have any hatred towards the West… Arabs want to live in peace, they love life, are very hospitable people and so far we’ve never seen an Arab army attack… a Western country. One fundamentalist should not be confused with a nation.

Is there any successful, modern Arab society?

It’s [pre-invasion] Iraq. It succeeded in negotiating its passage to modernity, [freeing] women and separating religion and state. It had reached a very high level of technology and it was close to obtaining the means for its sovereignty and it was destroyed because of that.

What is the means for sovereignty?

Today a country which does not have nuclear power is a vulnerable country. It is a guarantee of safety.

Of course the system had its problems. It happens that Saddam was a dictator. It is sad but doesn’t prevent what I’m saying from being true. Schools, universities, social welfare, there was not much poverty, there was work. Today there is nothing but death and ruins. Don’t believe everything the West is saying.

How much does your experience of the civil war in Algeria come into this book?

I don’t know.

Was it like Iraq as you describe it here?

All wars are terrible. We should never make war.

Did you ever feel you were on the wrong side?

I am in the best way because I am a novelist and I am free. I have said what I want to say, and I am an incarnation of freedom and I am free. I have no side, neither East nor West. My side is in the books.


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