The Bookseller of Algiers

Ursula Lindsey

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They were playing the soundtrack of the The Godfather in the lobby of the Aurassi hotel, a huge modernist statement built in the 1970s on a hill above the centre of Algiers. Today its cavernous spaces feel understaffed, and guests complain of water shortages in the morning. But the wide open view of tanker ships slowly coming and going in the bay of Algiers is spectacular. I was there for a conference on higher education and unemployment. Algeria has dozens of new, subsidised, overcrowded universities. In the last fifteen years, the number of students has tripled, to 1.5 million. But there are few jobs.

Even with an official invitation, I was only given my one-week visa at the last possible minute. On the way into town I passed the site of a new mosque, being built by Chinese contractors, that will be the largest in Africa. The road narrowed to two winding lanes as we approached the city centre, with its weatherbeaten 19th and 20th-century colonial architecture spread over steep hills facing the sea. Few foreign visitors – and virtually no tourists – go to Algeria. Our tour bus had a police escort, two cops on motorcycles clearing the traffic ahead of us. Everywhere we went themen milling on the side of the road – there were few women, especially at the end of the day – stopped and stared, unsmiling.

A middle-aged Algerian professor told me about the French schools she went to as a child, where pupils were fined five centimes for speaking Arabic. The colonial past feels much closer, more vivid, here than anywhere else I know. Meanwhile, such terms as ‘globalisation’ and ‘neoliberalism’ come into sharper focus through their absence. The smooth commercial surface, the array of choice and professional friendliness that meets you elsewhere is missing. Instead there is a welcome bluntness.

I walked into town along Frantz Fanon Street and read a newspaper at a café. Six terrorists had been ‘annihilated’ in a town in the interior. The questions on the gruelling end-of-year school exams had been leaked online. Columnists hinted at political conspiracies and machinations I didn’t understand.

People talk about President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s failing health as if it were the weather. A little better or worse today; he hasn’t been seen in a while; he’s saving his energies for an upcoming appearance. He has three more years to serve and no evident successor. ‘The problem is instead of hoping thing will get better,’ an Algerian journalist told me, ‘we are afraid they will get worse.’

‘Young Algerians confront a very conservative society,’ Sofiane Hadjadj told me. ‘They have problems regarding sex, their relationship with their parents, their relationship to power, to society.’ Hadjadj founded, with Selma Hellal, the publishing house Editions Barzakh in 2000, towards the end of the civil war. Young Algerians are eager to write, but most see it ‘as a form of therapy’, Hadjadj said (not unlike their counterparts in Europe and America). There aren’t many who can both describe their daily reality and achieve the necessary distance to transform it into narrative.

Barzakh published Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud in 2013. The book’s success abroad, especially in France, made it suspect at home. Daoud’s scathing portrayal of religion, of nationalism and of Algerian society was denounced as uncalled for and disloyal. ‘There is more self-censorship than censorship,’ Hadjadj told me. The army, religion and sex remain troublesome topics. The fiction-reading public in Algeria isn’t very large. A book that sells five to six thousand copies has done well.

Arabic literature generally is at an ‘inflection point’, according to Hadjadj. The great leftist writers of the 1960s, such as Elias Khoury and Sonallah Ibrahim, who had a strong vision of society, have been succeeded by a generation with more questions. ‘Should one write about oneself, about the world, about globalisation, about jihadism?’ Hadjadj asked. ‘You need a somewhat stable vision of society to write a novel, but it is changing all the time, and we don’t understand it. It’s very unsettling. We in Algeria were raised to truly believe that we belonged to a larger united Arab world, and now we witness the collapse of the Arab world.’

I came away loaded with books. On the plane I read Où J’ai laissé mon âme, by Jérôme Ferrari, who taught at the Lycée International in Algiers from 2003 to 2007. It’s a beautiful, terrible book, written from the point of view of two French officers in charge of intelligence-gathering – that is, torture and disappearances – in Algiers in 1957. I also have L’Ane mort, by Chawki Amari, a satirical road trip in which three young Algerians flee towards the mountains, a dead donkey belonging to a powerful commissaire stashed in the boot of their car. Both are in French, though Barzakh also publishes books in Arabic. But some points of view are almost entirely missing from contemporary Arabic literature. ‘I would love to come across an Islamist novelist,’ Hadjadj said.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Jeremy Harding: Algeria's Camus · 4 December 2014

Douglas Johnson: The Algerian War · 11 November 1999

Adam Shatz: The Daoud Affair · 4 March 2016