Literature in the News

NPR's award-winning Lourdes Garcia-Navarro left Libya this week and crossed back into Egypt. She reports that as the tide turns, the rebels' dream of a 'Free Libya' dims. As a Sierra Leonean, who would have loved to see a new dawn, my dream for a Ghadaffi-free Libya, tomorrow, dims too.

Yesterday, I listened to Eleanor Beardsley's NPR report from Algeria's capital. And as one does, intuitively, I track the backstory in a rollover guide beside it. Beardsley's report from Algiers was sobering. She called Algeria "a police state"; with its people frustrated and discouraged and corruption endemic. The head of the country's main opposition party said simply the regime cannot go on--the nation has been run by the same forces since indepencence in 1962, and invisible KGB-like political police continue to decide elections and manipulate justice. Yet a father of three quoted in the story countered that Algeria is not like Tunisia and Egypt.

"It's different," he said. "We're a people that does what it wants. We can travel, we work how we want. The power isn't so severe."

I've never visited Algeria, but I wanted so much to learn about the largest country in the Arab world. And follow "parallel developements in different places" as the protests in the Middle East and north Africa has swept across Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

For a ready guide to help explain the present, I turned to Martin Meredith's 750-page history of fifty years of independence on the continent. In The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence Meredith, a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of reporting experience on the continent, introduces Algeria in the 3rd chapter. Tracing its colonial conflict and its history of pieds noirs, Arabs and Kabyle, the legendary Ahmed Ben Bella, the revolutionary Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), and France's dogged determination to hold on to Algeria at all costs-- with electrified wire fences and radar alarms running the length of the nation's frontiers, blockades, water torture and mock drownings .

The more things change the more the stay the same.

Almost 20 chapters in, Meredith's picks up Algeria's story again.

For twenty-six years after independence in 1962, Algeria was run as a one-party dictatorship controlled by a military hierarchy with a monopoly on public life. Having won the liberation struggle against France, the army made itself the country's central institution, wielding power with ruthless determination from behind the scenes. Algerians often remarked sardonically that while every state had an army, in Algeria the army had a state. Every aspect of Algerian society - the economy, religion, language and culture - was subject to state control.

A "'cultural revolution' designed to rid Algeria of the legacy of French colonial rule, required schools, universities and the administration to undergo 'Arabisation,'" Meredith wrote of the Berber dissidents who complained:

Since independence, the ideological currents of the regime, and especially Arab Islamism, have exterted a monopoly on the cultural and intellectual life of the country, founded on censorship and authoritarianism.

He cites the government banning a 1980 conference on the use of the Berber language at a university and the massive outburst of strikes and riots in Kabylia, known as the Berber Spring. He then spreads the consequences of the ruthless suppression in front of the reader and how the crisis set off subsequent disasters in a state aimed at enhancing the Islamic character of Algeria while holding fast to its socialist agenda.

With a birth rate exceeding 3 percent a year, Algeria's population grew from 10 million in 1962, to 18 million in 1980. By October 1998, the FLN's grip on power was shaken by an outbreak of riots that Meredith says broke the mold of Algeria politics. In the aftermath, President Chadli Benjedid, a former army colonel, agreed to separate the FLN from the state and brought an end to the one-party system that had prevailed in Algeria for 26 years.

The FLN's main contender, reports Meredith, was the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). FIS' deputy party leader, a hard-line cleric, personified the younger generation of FIS supporters. The quote below is one of his many radical pronouncements that gave an indication of the horror that was to come.

Democracy is a stranger in the House of God. Guard yourself against those who say that the notion of democracy exists in Islam. There is no democracy in Islam. There exists only the shura with its rules and constraints.

Meredith reports that he attracted humongous audiences of up to 20,000 people each week at his Friday sermons.

In June 1990, the FIS gained control of 31 out of 48 provincial assemblies, winning landslide majorities in virtually all major cities.

Meredith writes that a young Algerian explained his support for the FIS in these terms:

You have only four options: you can remain unemployed and celibate because there are no jobs and no aprtments to live in; you can work in the black market and risk being arrested; you can try to emigrate to France to sweep the streets of paris or marseilles; or you can join the FIS and vote for Islam.

Stark choices for young people with little opportunity caught between a rock and hard place.

Attempts at reform after a 1992 coup foundered. Mohamed Boudiaf, one of nine historic chiefs credited with founding the FLN in 1954 and who had lived modestly in exile for Morocco for 28 years running a small brickworks, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. Meredith writes that with the banning of the FIS, Algeria descended into a nightmare of the violence reminiscent of the colonial conflict.

Pro-FIS groups waged a campaign of bombing, sabotage and assassination. Kill a policeman, Meredith wrote, became an inititaion for hittistes --those who lean against walls-- recruits. The army clamped down and resorted to torure and death squads, but the Islamist insurgency continued to spread. By 1993, the insurrection had spawned an extremist wing: Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA) specialized in the killing of writers, journalists, teachers and intellectuals perceived to be opposed to the idea of an Islamist state.

One of the 300,000 who lost their lives during these troubles was Tahar Djaout. His book The Last Summer of Reason, translated from the French by Marjolijin de Jager is descibed as an elegaic ode to literature and a furious protest against intolerance. The manuscript of this book was found among his papers after his death.

In one critical review on Amazon the customer writes:

Although the premise of this small novel is intriguing, especially given current events at a national and world level, The Last Summer of Reason is not worth the time. Yes, the manuscript was discovered after the author's death, which leads to a certain romanticism about him and the work. However, it is still an unfinished, unpolished, unfocused book, badly in need of revision and editing.

Maybe so. But I found Amazon's Profound and Poetic's review closer to my truth at the beginning of Spring 2011:

Tahar Djout's words are absolutely beautiful. A lyrical sledgehammer...this book is ironic in its timing. The reader is given an idea of what it is like to live in a world of extremism and religious fanaticism. Wole Soyinka's introduction is worth the price. Invest a day in reading the words of the late author and think about the fanatics among you. Could we all become Djouts?
Great question.

To help me find answers, I turned to Martin Merdith's journalistic and analystic recounting and filled in the gaps in my knowledge. But Djaout's poetry in his elegaic ode to literature and his furious protest against intolerance needs no guide. Once you meet Boualem Yekker, the bookstore owner and protagonist, you come into contact with so many unforgettable destinies.


  1. Wonderful and well-constructed review! I have been to Algeria and spent three memorable weeks in Algiers in May 2003, as I recall, only a few days after the country had been hit by the worst earthquake in over two decades, killing over 1,000 people and injuring over 7,000. I remember the cracks on the walls of the beautiful hotel where we stayed, well out of town, “for our security,” according to local authorities; foreigners were susceptible to being kidnapped for ransom at the time... I can still see the cracks on the walls of the conference rooms and hallways of the Central Bank. Most of all, I remember the beautiful and friendly people of Algeria, kind and helpful, in spite of their collective tragedy. Changes your perception… living among a people and spending time with them does… Forces you to make adjustments to the single story you had of them. Rich or poor, people everywhere have the same intrinsic needs.

    I think it safe to say, based on your review, that you would recommend this book? What do you think of it, in particular, as it pertains to sub-Saharan Africa? Funnily enough, I was seriously contemplating purchasing it earlier this year, even before the fateful events that started in Tunisia. Though it had great reviews on Amazon, I ultimately changed my mind and decided to leave it on my wish list for a while, particularly after reading two critical reviews:

    Explains nothing by Iver Petersen contends that “this is but a digest of Africa's woes - it describes everything and explains nothing. …hoping for an explanation of why Africa has gone backwards as the rest of the world has progressed - why Africa's leaders have been so exceptionally venal, cruel and megalomaniacal, why its people have submitted to such misrule for so long. But you won't find it here.” and

    Informative and Deeply Flawed by A. Idrissa

    I found the review by Idrissa compelling and it had the most profound effect on my decision not to buy the book. I was on the other hand very happy to see that you had actually taken the time to read it and share your analysis as well as the insightful and thought-provoking quotations you selected to support your opinion.

    I can understand Idrissa’s frustration about what he calls Meredith’s “deeply flawed” portrayal of Africa, but I am equally if not more frustrated about all the things that are wrong with Africa. I believe that we have ourselves to blame for our fate and we cannot continue to blame others, more than 50 years after our independence. Africa’s problems are Africa’s to solve and it is more than high time we took full responsibility and ultimately write our own definitive story, otherwise someone else will.

    Thanks again for a great review. I think I will get the book after all.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Unfortunately, I cannot get the hyperlink to Idrissa's review to work. Sorry! But it can be easily found on Amazon.

  4. thanks so much for this informative and insightful post, and the critical reviews you note. they help bring perspective to the africa debate. please let us know when you've read the book.


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