Write This, Or Shut Up

Of all the reviews and commentary that I’ve read this week on Arab literature (and there have been quite a few due to the Frankfurt Book Fair’s hosting of the Arab world as guest of honor), this article by Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books does the best job of addressing what irks me about the way in which this literature is approached and critiqued. It’s a review of The Swallows of Kabul by Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra (a.k.a Mohammed Moulessehoul.) Unlike Khadra’s earlier novels, which were set in his native Algeria at the height of the struggle between the Army and the Islamists, this new novel is set in Afghanistan, a country that, given restrictions imposed about the Taliban, would be, I would imagine, extremely difficult to visit and write about, especially in terms of domestic life. Shatz calls The Swallows of Kabul, “a novel for export, in which Afghanistan is not so much a setting as a symbol.” Yet, Shatz says, most reviewers have given it raves, including the New York Times‘ Lenora Todaro and Michiko Kakutani.

In every review, it is dutifully reported that Moulessehoul took his feminine nom de plume to avoid military censorship, and that he lives ‘in exile’ in southern France. The impression given is that Khadra is a dissident, rather than a staunch defender of the Algerian army, an institution that bears considerable responsibility for the country’s descent into war. Khadra is a talented writer, but he isn’t a dissident.(…) In a recent interview he declared that Algeria has ‘no political exiles’, which will have been news to exiled opponents of the military government such as Mohammed Harbi, a former FLN leader and modern Algeria’s leading historian. Though witheringly critical of Algeria’s Islamists, and of its business and political elites (the ‘political-financial mafia’), Khadra is notably indulgent of the army, which runs the country along with the Securite Militaire, the secret police, the regime’s ‘spinal cord’. Khadra’s books are prominently displayed in every Algerian bookshop, while La Sale Guerre (2001), a scathing memoir by Habib Souaidia, a former officer exiled in France, is banned.

Shatz is much kinder to Khadra’s, earlier, detective novels, in which the question of who is killing whom is particularly emblematic of the country’s turmoil, though in these works, too, the writer’s close relationship with the army can be felt, with nary a mention of the army’s repressive apparatus and its role in escalating the violence. Overall, I found the article a fascinating read about Khadra and the context in which he writes about Algeria.